By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor
Some of the 500 people who have signed up to fly into space aboard Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo are getting a little impatient with the brash British billionaire’s failure to deliver flights after seven-and-a-half years of development:
But not all of the investors keen to fly to the final frontier on this Star Trek dream are happy with the way they are being treated. Lebanese technology tycoon Bassim Haidar, who paid US$200,000 six years ago for his ticket, is frustrated at Galactic’s reluctance to give a date for the flight.
At his home in Surrey multi-millionaire Bassim tells me: “I wanted to be the first Arab in space, so I signed up right away. But I can’t get Branson to say when we will fly. I’m very disappointed in him. He’s not the ‘can-do businessman’ he likes to project to the media.
“I’ve been in touch with other customers and we all feel the same way. All we get are emails advertising holidays to his hotel in Morocco or his game reserve in South Africa. We feel that we are being used as potential customers for his other businesses.
I’m not interested in his role as a travel agent. I just want him to take me to space.”
Bassim is only the second person to go public with his frustrations over the schedule delays. One client got his money back last year. However, his comments indicate that the frustrations have become more widespread, although the extent of the grumbling is difficult to guage.
Bassim is right that Virgin has been cross-selling its other properties and services to would-be millionauts since the beginning of Virgin’s space program. The company has also said that clients aren’t just buying tickets but entry into an exclusive club of fellow movers and shakers and access to exclusive events.
SpaceSpaceTwo has also become an integral part of the Virgin brand and Branson’s image as a risk-taking, high-tech innovator. Behold, the latest Virgin Mobile commercial:
This is good stuff. Flying in space via special effects. All bucks, no Buck Rogers.
So, when will Virgin Galactic actually be flying commercially? Last year, Branson said that he hoped to take the first commercial flight with his family by Christmas 2012. However, it is already April and SpaceShipTwo has not had a single powered flight, so that expectation doesn’t look very realistic at this point. (Which is par for the course with Branson.) CEO and President George Whitesides has been recently quoted as predicting powered flight this summer.
The last time I saw Virgin Galactic officials talk about SpaceShipTwo was at the Next-generation Suborbital Researchers Conference at the end of February. They were not giving any dates, stressing they would fly the vehicle when it was ready and safe.
I’m hearing conflicting stories. Some people say that powered flights are on schedule; others say that there are still engine issues. We should know soon.
At present, some disgruntled millionaires upset because their flights to space have been delayed is probably a fairly minor issue for Virgin Galactic. Branson and his team know how to sooth angry customers. And there are no competitors out there that are likely to fly before 2014.
But, the window is narrowing. The company has to show some major progress on powered flights this year that will allow it to put forth a credible estimate for the start of commercial service. If that doesn’t happen, they’re going to have a lot of explaining to do.
October 4 will mark the the eighth anniversary of the last flight of SpaceShipOne and the beginning of the SpaceShipTwo program. Two weeks later, the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) will be held in Las Cruces. Virgin used the last two symposiums to dedicate the runway and the hangar facility out at Spaceport America. One wonder what they have in mind this year. I guess they can give tours of the hangar, which should be nearly complete by that point.
However, if they’re not flying under power by then, any event they plan would probably seem rather hallow. And the periodic complaints about the delays could become a cacophony that will widen far beyond a handful of annoyed millionaires. New Mexico taxpayers might start to seriously question why they spent $209 million on the spaceport, joining the relative handful of residents who have spoken out already.
That would be a much better story for the media because it involves the expenditure of public funding. This venture is such a novelty (Ashton in Spaaaaacee!) and affects so few people that almost nobody in the press really cares when the flights actually take place or how far off Branson has been in all of his predictions. But, once public criticism of how government has spent an enormous amount of money reaches a critical mass, the media start paying much closer attention.
The other major issue will come to the forefront once XCOR begins Lynx test flights, which could occur in December. The vehicle will finally be real, and more would-be millionauts will begin to give Lynx flights much more serious consideration. XCOR, with its much cheaper cost and “Right Stuff” experience, might even draw some customers away from Virgin Galactic if delays continue for SpaceShipTwo.
Virgin Galactic has been a big positive for Branson and the Virgin Group. However, the longer the delays go on and the louder the complaints become, the greater the potential for space tourism to become a black mark on Branson’s reputation as an innovative, can-do tech leader. The next six months will tell.