More bad space news: Explosion at Scaled Composites site

By Phil Plait | July 26, 2007 8:42 pm

If bad news comes in threes, someone is bad at math: there was a huge blast at the Mojave Air and Space Port home of Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipOne, the first civilian rocket into space. Two Three [sigh] people were killed. Evidently they were testing the engine for SpaceShipTwo when it blew. It wasn’t an explosion: they were doing a "cold test" with nitrous oxide, which isn’t flammable. I’m guessing a weak spot somewhere resulted in a rupture, and the huge pressure from the gas blew up the works. A bad valve, a weak point in a fuel line or a tank… hard to say. I’m sure we’ll find out more eventually.

Not much detail on this one yet. Cripes, when I went to dinner I was thinking this day was done. Let’s hope any more news will be better.


Comments (19)

  1. Chris

    Well, even though N2O can’t ignite, it can and does explosively decompose in the presence of enough heat. That can make for HUGE explosive forces when it happens in an enclosed area – that’s one possibility for what happened…

  2. Grashtel

    While a high pressure explosion would seem to be the most likely possibility would that produce the blackening seen around the blast site in the CNN pictures and video?

  3. Davidlpf

    What else could go wrong today for the space industry.

  4. Wayne

    Surly Reuters (and a Fire spokesman) can’t be wrong:

    “Television images showed wrecked equipment and vehicles and blackened ground from the blast, which Diffenbaugh said involved the highly flammable gas nitrous oxide.”

    Still, there were burn injuries, so it probably wasn’t a simple pressure rupture…

    What a depressing day for spaceflight.

  5. tacitus

    And so the Race to Space claims two more casualties, which only goes to show what a risky and dangerous endeavor it is, and not just for the astronauts at the sharp end of the missions.

    Our thoughts go out to the families of the fallen. May their sacrifice be remembered alongside all the others who have dedicated their lives to the bold enterprise of space travel.

  6. John Wilson

    Ironically, this was reported on the BBC (here) with the quote:

    “Firefighters said the explosion involved the highly flammable gas, nitrous oxide.”

    Once again, my faith in BBC reporting takes a nose dive.

  7. Tim G

    Nitrous oxide is not flammable, however it may be used as an oxidizer for certain fuels used in rockets.

  8. Tim G

    I have one minor complaint pertaining to the new blog look. Only three of eight entries dated July 26th show on one page.

  9. 2007 hasn’t exactly been a banner year for the space program, unfortunately…

  10. OneHotJupiter

    My condolences to the families of those engineers killed in this terrible accident.

    I do hope this dosen’t lead to the end of Scaled composites or privatized space exploration , THAT would be a shame to the memory of those who gave thier lives for the advancement of mankind , lets not have them die in vain , Spaceshiptwo MUST fly!

  11. AndreasB

    So CNN says 2 dead, 4 injured, but LA Times says 3 dead, 3 injured. Seems one of the injured has died in hospital.

  12. MichaelS

    According to CNN, a 3rd person died today, with 2 others in critical condition at the hospital and 1 other in serious condition.

  13. Brian T.

    It sort of echoes the Apollo 1 crew, doesn’t it? Very sad. Still, everyone involved with spaceflight knows the risks involved with what they do. I think ultimately this will only spur them on.

    Hats off to everyone at Scaled Composites.

  14. I’m saddened by any such incident, but as a many year fan of Scaled Composites I am doubly so. We should all take a moment to remember all the pioneers in space exploration that have lost their lives or health in the pursuit. Finally, we need to take a look at what went wrong, learn from it, and move forward when we can.

  15. Will. M

    I just found this on BBC News: “Nasa astronauts ‘drunk on duty’
    US space shuttle takes off
    It is not clear if the incidents occurred on space shuttles
    US astronauts were cleared to fly while drunk at least twice, a review panel set up by space agency Nasa has found.”
    The NYT has the full story here as well:
    WHAT in the hell is going on with NASA?

  16. Maurice

    Sad days are ahead for all pioneers as they are a part of the legacy of every pioneering effort. To pioneer is to risk for the sake of great gain. This is not judgment, just fact. And when it happens we taje a step back, glean the lessons of the event, learn and adapt to not repeat the error(s) of the recent event. So it was with ocean vessels rounding the Horn, with hot air balloonists and those building on the Wrights’ first flights; with fanjet powered craft in the 30’s and 40’s; with rocketships taking us to the edge of space from the 40’s-60’s; and so on.
    Rutan’s group might be congratulated for going this far without a major incident, much farther than NASA did. Of course Rutan benefited from NASA’s mistakes of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s to the present: Mercury Redstone explosions; Apollo 1-fire that burned three alive in a pure O2 enviornment; Apollo 13, etc. Spaceflight is no mere cruise around the farmlands on a Sunday afternoon. Tragedies like this awaken us to this reality, reminding us that we are not as smart as we think, and that if we lose focus, that the perils of spaceflight will jump up and bite us. It is that much more alarming and dismaying to think that astronauts may have launched while impaired by pre-flight drunkenness.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar