White Knight cockpit

The view from the cockpit of the White Knight. The cabin layout is identical to that of SpaceShipOne. Photo: © 2004 Mojave Aerospace Ventures, photograph by Scaled Composites. SpaceShipOne is a Paul G. Allen project.

By Michael Belfiore.

Wired, August 2, 2007.

The private space industry suffered a setback last Thursday when an explosion ripped through a rocket-engine test area in the California desert, killing three workers and seriously injuring three others.

The industry’s first fatal accident is already becoming a defining event in the history of commercial spaceflight — it’s the private rocketeers’ Apollo 1.

In 1967, NASA’s first moon ship was swept by fire in a ground test, killing all three astronauts on board and forcing a re-evaluation of the Apollo space-capsule design. Thursday’s accident will likely force a similar period of self-reflection for the new industry of commercial space travel.

The workers killed in Thursday’s blast had been testing a nitrous-oxide delivery system for a commercial spaceship under construction by Scaled Composites for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. And while it’s too early to tell what effect Scaled’s accident will have on the industry as a whole, it’s safe to say it will take more than this to put the commercial spaceflight genie back in its bottle. Meanwhile, the three men who died — Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Charles Glen May — are being remembered by others in the industry as heroes who died for a higher calling.

“We are reaching for the stars, and it is not easy,” said space entrepreneur and Space Frontier Foundation co-founder Rick Tumlinson in a press release. “Accidents happen. Good people die. And we move on. We move on to reach the goal they died for, because to do less would be to dishonor them and their sacrifice.”

Read the full article at wired.com.