Space tourism firm fined over deaths


Scaled Composites, the fledgling space tourism company founded by rocket pioneer Burt Rutan, was fined $25,870 on Friday as a result of an accident last July that killed three workers at the firm’s Mojave, Calif., testing facility.

The fine covered five violations of workplace safety codes, including a failure to maintain a safe working environment and to properly train workers handling hazardous materials, according to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

The three workers — Eric Dean Blackwell, 38; Charles Glen May, 45; and Todd Ivens, 33 — were killed in an explosion at a remote testing site at the Mojave Air and Space Port on July 26. Three other employees were injured in the blast, which occurred when a tank of nitrous oxide ignited during a test of the spacecraft’s propellant system.

The company issued a statement Friday, saying: “Scaled Composites regrets that this accident occurred, and we have expressed our condolences to the victims and their families and provided support during this difficult time.”

“We cooperated fully with Cal/OSHA during the investigation, and we continue to work with the agency so that the enhanced procedures already implemented promote the safest workplace conditions possible.”

In 2004, the firm became the first private company to launch a reusable manned rocket into space. That craft was SpaceShipOne. At the time of the accident, Scaled Composites was working on a component for SpaceShipTwo, the six-passenger commercial model.

Of the five violations cited, two were listed as serious, meaning that they carried a substantial risk of death or serious injury. One citation, imposing an $18,000 fine, charged that the company failed to correct unsafe conditions or workplace practices associated with the handling of nitrous oxide.

A second accused the firm of failing to inform workers about and train them in the safe use of hazardous materials, specifically nitrous oxide.

All five violations have been corrected, said Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Kate McGuire. She said her office does not determine criminal negligence. That will be up to Kern County Dist. Atty. Edward R. Jagels. Steve Katz, supervisor of the district attorney’s white collar crime section, said he hadn’t seen the results of the state inquiry. After reviewing it, prosecutors could file criminal, civil or no charges, he said.