Fire at Mojave Spaceport; No Injuries Reported

Fire outside a Virgin Galactic hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Fire outside a Virgin Galactic hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At just after 5:15, I got a rather alarming text message.

“Loud boom from airport, followed by billowing black smoke.”

At the airport? That’s where I was. I thought I’d heard something. An engine explosion in the test area? A plane crash?

I ran out the door and around the building when I saw it.

Thick black smoke rising from the ground outside the old Derringer hangar — now used as storage area for nitrous oxide and equipment by Virgin Galactic. Clearly not a test failure.

My journalism instincts kicked in as I snapped a couple of photos with my phone. Then the voice of an airport security officer brought me back to reality.

Evacuate the airport now, he called out from his car. The fire was near a large nitrous tank, and there could be a blast if the tank ruptured.

That’s all I needed. I sprinted to the other side of the building, jumped in the car, and drove off the airport to Mariah Inn parking lot just outside the main entrance. A safe enough distance, I figured. From there, I watched vehicles stream off the airport and fire and emergency units coming in.

The fire was extinguished fairly quickly, and there are no reports of injuries. No word on what caused the fire. From what I could see, there doesn’t appear to be any damage to the hangar itself. The area is cordoned off while firefighters do clean up, so I couldn’t get very close.

UPDATE: Something large appears to have burned up in the fire. At about 8 p.m., I saw a group of men trying to secure tarps over what appeared to be a large object on a flatbed trailer parked on the street outside the site of the fire. They were having a tough time because the Mojave winds had come up. I couldn’t tell what it was, but it seemed sizable.

UPDATE No. 2: Changed title to remove reference to blast. Issue of whether the fire was preceded by a blast, or by a sonic boom, is still in dispute.  There are varying accounts. This change reflects the uncertainty.