MOJAVE, California (REUTERS) - Richard Branson is set to meet his Virgin Galactic space team in California's Mojave Desert on Saturday following the crash of a passenger spaceship being developed by his company that killed one pilot and seriously injured the other.
The entrepreneur has pledged to keep up the drive for space travel, saying on the company's web site: "Space is hard - but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together."
Friday's crash of the suborbital vehicle, undergoing its first powered test flight since January over the Mojave, 150km north of Los Angeles, was the second disaster suffered by a private space company in less than a week, dealing a blow to the fledgling commercial space launch industry.
On Tuesday, an Antares rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences Corp exploded after liftoff from Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station.
In the Virgin crash, one pilot body was found in the wreckage, while the second pilot, who ejected and parachuted to the ground, survived with serious injuries, according to Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood.
The survivor was found more than a mile from the main wreckage of SpaceShipTwo near the Mojave Air and Space Port, he said.
Television footage of the crash site showed wreckage of the spacecraft lying in two large pieces on the ground, and the company said the spacecraft was destroyed. Youngblood said a debris field was spread over more than a mile.
Both crew members were test pilots for Scaled Composites, the Northrop Grumman Corp subsidiary that designed and built the spacecraft for Virgin and lost three other employees in a July 2007 ground test accident. "While not a Nasa mission, the pain of this (new)tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration," Nasa, the US space agency, said in a statement.
The crash occurred shortly after the craft separated from the jet airplane that carried it aloft for its high-altitude launch.
Scaled Composites President Kevin Mickey told a news conference on Friday the ill-fated flight was the first using a new rocket fuel formula the company switched to in May. He said the formula "had been proven and tested on the ground" before Friday's test launch.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending one of its teams to investigate.
More than 800 people have paid or put down deposits to eventually fly aboard the spaceship, which is hauled to an altitude of about 13.7km and released by Virgin's White Knight Two carrier jet airplane.
Cost of a ride on the ship now goes for US$250,000 (S$320,000) and among those who have signed up are celebrities including singer Lady Gaga and actors Angelina Jolie and Ashton Kutcher.
The Virgin and Antares back-to-back accidents are set backs for he commercial space launch industry, which has been taking on more work traditionally done by the governments while also expanding for-profit space markets, including tourism.