back to article Fatal explosion hits Virgin space programme

Three employees of a pioneering spaceship company were killed and another three badly hurt when a propellant system blew up during testing in California yesterday. The explosion happened at Mojave Air and Space Port at about 2:30pm local time. It is believed to have involved a tank of nitrous oxide, to be used as fuel in the …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nitrous Oxide?

    That's won't explode by itself. Something would have to super heat (i.e. another fire) the canister and make it rupture which could result in a big flash fireball from the extra oxygen present in the nitrous. (that's what makes it work in jets and cars you know, extra oxygen, not the fact it's a super fuel like gasoline)

    We use nitrous oxide all the time at work and we also use it to scare the newbies; someone opens a valve and sticks fire in front of it just to watch the newbie run away screaming. It's great fun.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Serious bummer. BTW, nitrous oxide isn't a fuel, it's an oxidiser. Blowups happen... look at a history of the US & Russian space programs...

  3. Alan Stepney

    Quote "....we also use it to scare the newbies...."

    Quote........We use nitrous oxide all the time at work and we also use it to scare the newbies; someone opens a valve and sticks fire in front of it just to watch the newbie run away screaming. It's great fun.....end quote

    Hmm, you werent involved in this accident by any chance ,were you ?. Anyway let me remember not to get a job at your, erm, professional establisment,lol.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nitrous Oxide? Take two.

    Was there a fireball? I see "explosion" and "blew up" mentioned but no mention of anything actually catching fire. A decent sized tank storing just about any gas at high pressure will do a significant amount of damage and certainly kill or maim anyone standing close enough if, say, a weld fails catastrophically. Flying debris will make you just as dead as fire.

    That could account for the apparent discrepancy between the contents of the tank and the result.


  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We just dont know...

    Well its not like its rocket science...

  6. Peter Fairbrother

    Nitrous Oxide ...

    ... _can_ in fact explosively decompose, into nitrogen and oxygen, with no fuel present.

    The activation energy is very high, so nitrous is normally reasonably safe to handle, but it's quite an energetic reaction when it goes. Think of nitrous as a very hard to detonate explosive.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    *Can* explosively decompose into nitrogen and oxygen at high temperatures, but that shouldn't have happened here. The reports say this was a cold-flow test of the oxidiser without a fuel source being present present.

    So it's more likely to have been a catatrophic failure of a pressure vessel rather than a chemical explosion.

    Horrible all the same.

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  9. Nick

    The Final Fronter

    Welcome to the world of space development. If NASA with its billions of dollars (even if equipment is built by the lowest bidder) have difficulty designing a craft that doesn't fail (take the shuttle with its 20% complete failure rate) just goes to show how dangerous it still is. Lets hope they can iron out the kinks in the design so these craft don't fail too often and cause the project to fold.

    Thoughts to family and friends, and a message to the engineers who have to build - Reach for the sky!

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Exploration and risk

    have always gone hand in hand, especially space exploration. In fact Burt Rurtan said long before the X Project started that he expected fatalities to be part of this project. It's awful to see someone loose their life in these endeavors but it's always happened and always will.

    If you look at the $ spent vs. people killed vs. effectiveness, they've got a big leg up on any other space program. Almost $0 budget (compared to NASA/EU) successful space flight, and only 3 people dead; that's good math (very utilitarian but still good). NASA and the Russians blew up a lot of people before their programs ever got into space so Burt and Co. are doing very well by any standard.

  11. elder norm


    Hmmmm, "take the shuttle with its 20% complete failure rate)".

    The shuttle does not have a 20% failure rate, unless you consider every make of automobile to have a 99.99% complete failure rate????

    You have to consider all the shuttle flights, not just the number of shuttles. :-(

    Afterall, ALL cars on the highway fail at somepoint, from collision, rust, etc, but many last 10-15 years or longer.

    Just a thought.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Space Ship Two

    I can see a possibility of sabotage. This is a private company and this makes them look bad. I hope the pilot was not hurt. My condolences to these space pioneers.

  13. Outcast

    Terra Firma

    Indeed, Condolences to the bereaved and injured.

    Bad as it sounds..... Better to happen on the ground than upon re-entry. The debris is right there and should help analysis.

    Keep on Trucking Guys...

    I want my Cobra Mk111 some day.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    From the numbers I would expect there was an accident, but that not following a safety procedure compounded the damage. Compared to other similar industry where accidents can happen.

  15. Jon Tocker

    Condolences to those affected

    Not good, but as has already been said - it's not without risk (nothing's without risk, actually, they could have all been mown down by cars while crossing the road or killed in an industrial accident at plastics factory) and they still have a better Industrial Safety record than their competitors.

    Three deaths after two successful sub orbital rocket flights is pretty good compared with NASA's bloody history (not to mention the Soviets' kill count). NASA, not satisfied with three-at-a-time with the Apollo missions had to build the shuttle to enable them to take out seven at a time...

  16. Parax

    I bet it happened when they shut the valve!

    Water hammer effect as valve closed, causes dieseling in pipe causing backpressure leading to decomposition in tank.

    (needs a pressure release valve at shutoff valve - or a slower shutoff)

    See this one:

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