In life and death, Virgin Galactic space pilot testing new frontier

By Irene Klotz

By Irene Klotz

MOJAVE Calif. (Reuters) - The fledging private space travel industry marked a sad but perhaps inevitable milestone last week with its first fatal flight.

Now, an effort to honor the fallen pilot on a national memorial to U.S. astronauts who perished in the line of duty is testing yet another frontier.

Mike Alsbury, 39, a pilot for the Mojave, California-based company Scaled Composites, died during a test flight Friday aboard SpaceShipTwo, a six-passenger commercial rocket plane built for Richard Branson’s space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.

The cause of the accident is under investigation.

The non-profit Astronauts Memorial Foundation, which built and maintains the congressionally recognized Space Mirror Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, received a request to include Alsbury’s name on the black granite monument.

The Space Mirror includes the names of crew members killed during the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accidents and the 1967 Apollo 1 launch pad fire, as well as astronauts and Air Force pilots killed during training accidents and other flights associated with the U.S. space program.

“Please consider Michael Alsbury for addition to your Space Mirror display of names,” longtime space program analyst Jim Oberg wrote on the foundation’s Facebook page.

“He lost his life in testing a real manned space vehicle designed for certifiable space flight. It wasn't a government-funded space flight project, but many believe it represents the future of wider human access to suborbital and orbital flight,” Oberg said.

The Florida-based foundation acknowledged the request but said its charter dictates that only astronauts and pilots on national U.S. space program missions can be honored.

“Here's your chance to drive the national agenda on opening the space frontier, by getting ahead of any controversial fuss over definitions, and honoring this man and the movement he has come to represent,” Oberg said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)