It could be a year before federal investigators have any answers about what caused the Virgin Galactic spacecraft to crash, but that shouldn't stop the company from pursuing its space tourism ventures.
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National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Christopher A. Hart said tonight that investigators will be on site gathering information for four to seven days, but putting it all together could take as much as 12 months.
Because it was a test flight, there was a great deal of deata recorded by Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, the company developing SpaceShipTwo, which crashed Friday over the Mojave Desert.
SpaceShipTwo broke apart after being released from a carrier aircraft at high altitude.
"The wreckage is located in a large area, oriented northeast to southwest, about five miles from end to end," Hart said. "And when the wreckage is dispersed like that, that indicates the likelihood of in-flight break-up."
One pilot, identified today as Michael Tyner Alsbury, 39, of Tehachapi, Calif., was found dead inside the wreckage.
Alsbury was a respected test pilot and devoted husband and father of two young children, his employer and neighbor said Saturday.
He was involved in the flight testing of nine different manned aircraft and co-piloted SpaceShipTwo when it broke the sound barrier during its first powered flight last year. He was also sitting in the co-pilot's seat when the craft first dropped in 2010 from its carrier aircraft several miles above the Earth for an unpowered glide test
The other pilot, identified late today as Peter Siebold, director of flight operations for Scaled Composites, was able to parachute to safety and was taken to a hospital for treatment.
He was described late today as alert and talking with his family and doctors.
At least a dozen investigators from the NTSB will examine the crash site, collect data, and interview witnesses, Hart said.
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson vowed today that the crash would not be the end of the company's effort, and said that by finding out what caused the disaster they would "honor the bravery" of the pilots.
"We are determined to honor the bravery of the pilots and the teams here by learning from this tragedy," Branson said. "Only then can we move forward, united behind a collective desire to push the boundaries of human endeavor."
Though company "fell short" when the rocket broke apart, Branson said his team would learn from the crash and "push on."
"In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants," he said. "Yesterday, we fell short."
The crash happened during the spacecraft's fourth test flight under rocket power.
"The dream of space travel will live on," Branson said. "We would love to finish what we started some years ago."
The prospects for commercial space travel should not be dismissed because of the incident Friday, he said, comparing it to commercial air travel.
"In the early days of aviation, there were incidents and then aviation became very safe," he said. "In the early days of commercial space travel, there have been incidents and then we hope that one day, the test pilots will enable people to be able to go to space safely and that is our wish and desire."
The NTSB began its investigation into the cause of the crash today.
Branson said that anyone who signed up for a chance at space travel, which costs as much as $250,000 per person, can have their money refunded.
Several hundred people have already bought seats on future space flights, including Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Justin Bieber. But Branson said Virgin Galactic, his company developing private space flight, has not used any of the money.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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