Update on the Fire at the Mojave Spaceport

Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Fire at a Spaceship Company hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

Some additional intel on that fire at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Thursday evening.

The fire occurred next to a large, stationary nitrous oxide storage tank that provides the oxidizer for SpaceShipTwo flights. There also was a tractor trailer marked nitrous oxide parked beside the stationary tank at the time of the fire. Firefighters sprayed down these tanks to keep them cool while others put out the fire.

It is not clear what the capacities of the storage tank and trailer are, or how much nitrous oxide they contained at the time of the fire. However, fears that the tanks could breach and cause a major conflagration resulted in an evacuation of the airport around the site. This reason was explicitly mentioned by the security officer who told me and others to evacuate the area we were in at the time.

The area where the fire occurred has been clean up. There is no visible damage to the adjacent hangar, which old hands at the spaceport would know as the old Derringer building. The nitrous oxide tractor trailer has since been moved and is now parked outside of Virgin Galactic’s FAITH hangar in another part of the airport.

The statement from Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and Mojave Spaceport CEO Stu Witt states that the fire took place when scrap material on a pallet ignited. A report in the Antelope Valley News indicates it was scrap composite material. To date, there is no explanation of what caused the fire or why The Spaceship Company — the Virgin Galactic subsidiary that leases the site — would store scrap material next to nitrous oxide tanks.

Multiple sources familiar with the use of nitrous oxide have told me that it is standard procedure to keep areas around such tanks free of anything that can easily burn. However, the area near the tank has been used for storage of various objects, sources say. These claims match what I have seen driving past the site. (For more on these safety issues, see the discussions on earlier posts here and here. Feel free to contribute, but don’t feed the trolls!)

Sources indicate The Spaceship Company uses the property — which includes a hangar — to store equipment and tooling that are used for producing WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo. A witness reports that one of the pieces appeared damaged by the fire. On Thursday night, I saw men securing blue tarps over at least one large piece of debris on the back of a flatbed trailer.

That debris appears to have been moved to one of three large garbage containers. On Friday evening and Saturday morning, a water hose could be seen running into one of the bins, with water draining out of the bin onto the pavement. A partly burned wooden pallet was later seen sticking out of the bin on Saturday.

Finally, about that bang that people heard. Some believe it occurred just prior to the fire and was connected to the blaze. There is some evidence that it was actually a sonic boom from a jet that occurred earlier and had no connection to the fire. One interesting piece of evidence is the lack of visible damage to the adjacent hangar, which includes a number of windows on the doors that face the area where the fire occurred. A sonic boom wouldn’t have broken them, but an onsite explosion would like have done so.

That’s about it for now. Will provide updates as I get them.