Posted 7/27/07BAKERSFIELD -
A third person died Thursday night following the explosion of an experiemental rocket fuel tank at the Mojave Airport.
The deceased have been identified as 38-year-old Eric Blackwell of Randsburg, 45-year-old Charles May of Mojave, and 33-year-old Todd Ivens of Tehachapi.
Three people remained hospitalized Thursday at Kern Medical Center.
Airport General Manager Stuart Witt said there are no official protocols for investigating an accident involving research and development for civilian space flight.
“We are the custodians of the air and space port and the industrial park, and this is an industrial mishap with casualties,” Witt said. “And I have a responsibility to find out what happened, and the only way to do that properly is to go outside and find an independent person to come in and give us their best effort.”
"We don't know why it exploded," said Burt Rutan, the owner of Scaled Composites. "We just don't know."
Rutan was visibly distraught as he appeared in public for the first time Thursday night following the tragedy.
He said he still can't believe three of his employees are dead, and three others critically injured.
"We were doing a test that we believed was completely safe... which is why we don't remove the people from the area like we do on a rocket test," said Rutan.
Scaled Composites is best known for building SpaceShipOne, the first private rocked manned by a civilian astronaut.
The explosion happened when workers were testing propellant for a rocket fuel tank for SpaceShipTwo models.
The tank exploded around 3 p.m. Thursday.
Rutan said one of the propellants they were testing was nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas.
He said the gas isn't toxic and is commonly used to increase an engine's horsepower.
He said they've done the test dozens of times, and doesn't know why this one went bad.
"We've had no injuries from anyone... and we've done some really dangerous stuff," he said.
The explosion ripped apart equipment being used in the test and left mangled steel and debris in its wake.
After the news conference, Rutan headed to Bakersfield where he said he will spend time with the families of those who were killed and injured.
Two of those injured were in critical condition Thursday, and the third was in serious condition, according to Kern Medical Center.
All of those killed and injured were employees of Scaled Composites.