Update on the Scaled Composites Explosion at Mojave

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Thursday's fatal accident at Scaled Composites, in Mojave, Calif., occurred during a test of the flow of nitrous oxide through an injector, the Los Angeles Times reported on Friday. Two workers were killed at the scene and a third died later at a hospital. Three other workers remain hospitalized with serious injuries, and several others escaped injury. The testing was part of the development of a new rocket motor for SpaceShipTwo. The chemical was at room temperature and under pressure, Burt Rutan, president of Scaled, said at a news conference. "We felt it was completely safe. We had done a lot of these [tests] with SpaceShipOne," said Rutan, looking tired and shaken. He added that "we just donít know" why the explosion occurred. Rutan said the suspected culprit, nitrous oxide, normally is "not considered a hazardous material," and said this was the first time in Scaled's 25-year history that anyone has been hurt in a test. The three who died were Eric Dean Blackwell, 38, of Randsburg; Charles Glen May, 45, of Mojave; and Todd Ivens, 33, of Tehachapi. The three who were injured have not been identified. They suffered shrapnel wounds and are in stable condition.

Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn expressed sympathies to the families and declined further comment until Scaled completes its investigation. Officials at the under-construction New Mexico spaceport, the expected launch site for Virgin Galactic flights of SpaceShipTwo, said they will closely scrutinize the causes of the accident but at this time don't see it as a setback for their plans. Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation, said the accident should not ground the SpaceShipTwo project. "This was an industrial accident. This has nothing to do with spaceflight," he told the Associated Press. "I have complete confidence that they are building a safe and robust spaceship." Northrop Grumman had announced last week that it plans to increase its stake in Scaled from 40 percent to 100 percent, while leaving all the current management team in place. It's not clear if this week's accident will have any effect on that deal.