The Big Read: Sir Richard Branson's space race

Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson speaks to guest during the roll-out ceremony of the new SpaceShip Two VSS Unity spaceship at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Photo / Getty Images
Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson speaks to guest during the roll-out ceremony of the new SpaceShip Two VSS Unity spaceship at the Mojave Air and Space Port. Photo / Getty Images

The space ship has been rebuilt with a savvy new design, and hundreds of passengers are booked in for the flight.

Those wealthy enough to afford the A$346,356 (US$250,000) fare are reportedly so eager to boast about the experience on social media, they've asked if the ship will have Wi-Fi, news.com.au reported.

But will Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson's space travel experiment be a roaring success, or a one-way ticket to oblivion?

It's a question that must weigh heavily on the entrepreneur's mind as testing begins on the updated prototype of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo - hoped to finally get off the ground next year, more than a decade after the project began.

Richard Branson flanked by his son, Sam, and granddaughter, Eva-Deia Branson, 1, speaks to guests besides the WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicle in February. Photo / Getty Images
Richard Branson flanked by his son, Sam, and granddaughter, Eva-Deia Branson, 1, speaks to guests besides the WhiteKnightTwo launch vehicle in February. Photo / Getty Images

Branson's incredible goal of making commercial space travel a reality has suffered some disastrous setbacks.

On October 31, 2014, what looked like a promising test flight ended in tragedy when the VSS Enterprise crashed, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

"It's the most awful feeling," Branson said during a talk at the World Business Forum in Sydney on Thursday.

But, he said, the team of engineers working on the project was determined to keep going after learning that a pilot error, rather than a mechanical defect, was to blame.

Father-of-two Alsbury, 39, was an experienced test pilot, and investigators were baffled by his decision to prematurely unlock the Virgin Galactic craft's movable tail section, causing it to break apart in midair. Co-pilot Peter Siebold, 43, survived with relatively minor injuries after managing to activate his parachute.

"I went straight to Mojave Desert, where the accident had taken place, which I think anybody who's running a company must do if there's an incident," Branson told the packed Event Centre at The Star.

"Fortunately, we found out that same day what had happened, that it wasn't a technical fault or something wrong with the rocket or the space ship; it had been a test pilot error.

"So, I was able to talk to the engineers, talk to all the wonderful inventors there, and say 'this was nothing to do with you, it's not your fault and, if you want, I'll continue to support the venture and, I think with one voice, they said they wanted to continue."

Branson said what followed was "the biggest hug in history", with 600 manly blokes embracing before promptly returning to work.

Messages from supporters buoyed him as the media pumped out speculation about a midair engine explosion that had never taken place, and Time Magazine published a blistering editorial titled Enough with Amateur-Hour Space Flight.

"The prime minister of Iceland's wife rang me up on the day of the accident to say 'I'd like to buy a ticket', so we had people making gestures like that," he said.


Virgin Galactic's high profile supporters include physicist Stephen Hawking, who hopes to be one of its first passengers, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and Hollywood star Harrison Ford - who posed for pictures in the cockpit at VSS Unity's launch in February.

Of the 700 "astronauts" booked in for an eventual trip into space, only about 20 pulled out after the 2014 crash.

Wealthy adventurers who have put down six-figure deposits for the ultimate joy ride have reportedly asked if they can bring along music, cameras - or, even better, smartphones hooked into Wi-Fi, so they can tweet pictures of themselves during the flight.

In a lengthy Vanity Fair article on the project, journalist William Langewiesche described such people as "woefully unprepared for this rocket-ship ride".

He may appear philosophical about it now, but eight months before the crash Branson was quoted saying that while a government-owned company could "just about get away with losing 3 per cent of your clients" - a reference to NASA's statistical record - "for a private company you can't really lose anybody."

At the time, he was referring to passengers, but there's no doubt that Alsbury's death took a heavy toll.

After the crash, reports circulated about passengers getting cold feet, with The Sunday Times quoting one person who was getting nervous about their six-figure deposit.

"I think it will fly, but I am not sure whether it will get me into space as I was promised," the customer said.

A HIGH-RISK PROFESSION

"I think everybody knows the risks that they were taking," Branson said on Thursday, referring to the 2014 crash.

"If you look at the history of test pilots, it's a frighteningly short life that test pilots have. [They] are there to find that one thing that could possibly go wrong ... There are some things which you can't test on the ground, you have to actually test them in the air."

He cited the fatal 2011 test flight of the award-winning G650 private jet that killed four seasoned Gulfstream employees.

VSS Enterprise crashed in 2014. Photo / AP
VSS Enterprise crashed in 2014. Photo / AP

"It was very tough, but the important thing was to hold yourself together, and going to the memorial service, pay respects to the family, and then move forward," Branson said.

"And I think Mike Alsbury, who lost his life, would not have expected us to have done differently."

One has to wonder what response Alsbury's widow Michelle Saling would have to these comments. After the deadly crash, she told the press: "I have lost the love of my life. I am living in hell right now."

Dangers aside, Branson still plans to board to inaugural passenger flight, he confirmed in an interview with Bloomberg on Friday.


The billionaire has previously said that he would bring his children with him, though it is unclear whether this remains the case now that three grandchildren are in the mix.
Granddaughter Eva Deia marked her first birthday in February by smashing a bottle of milk over the new space ship, VSS Unity, in a mock champagne christening.

Asked this week whether he'd be taking passengers into space soon, Branson responded: "I very much hope so, otherwise I would have miscalculated very badly, indeed."

He reiterated that the 2014 crash "was not a technical issue, it was a pilot issue, and we can make sure that that doesn't happen again ... The fundamental craft that we've built, we feel very comfortable with.

"Over the next few months, our test pilots will be putting it through its paces, taking it into space, and once they finish doing that, and the authorities feel that it's worthy of a certificate, then I'll be going up, we'll start taking people into space."

- news.com.au

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