Branson: VG Has No Competition, Everyone Else Years Behind Us

 Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Wired UK has a story on Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. It’s actually a really good piece that goes through the whole history of the program up to the preparations for powered flights later this year.

The article documents in detail the years of delay, massive cost overruns, engine problems and the tragic deaths of Scaled Composites engineers along the way. You’ll be happy to know that despite all those setbacks, Branson has lost none of his bravado or disdain for competition he can barely acknowledge exists:

But Branson is confident that Galactic is years ahead of anyone else. “In this field we don’t really have any competitors. Land based take-off — they can never compete with us for people going into space,” he says. “And spaceship companies where people have to parachute back to Earth — that’s the old technology. I may be being naïve — there may be somebody doing something very secretive which we don’t know about — but my guess is that we are five or six years ahead of any competitor.”

Seriously?

Oh, good grief. Naïve is not the word for this…

Comments like these that don’t endear Branson to the rest of the commercial spaceflight industry. Not that it seems to matter. Branson and Virgin Galactic have always tried to float far above the rest of the pack, high atop Mount Olympus with everyone else far down the slope (if they were there at all).

It’s probably best to file this along with all the predictions Branson has made over the years about the start of Virgin Galactic’s commercial flights. These projections didn’t seem very credible at the time he made them, suspicions born out by subsequent events.

It’s not that other companies haven’t slipped in their projections for various reasons. But, Virgin Galactic has been the worst at making claims that never panned out. Projections are made, dates come and go, and new predictions were once again put forward as if nothing had happened.

Virgin Galactic says it has the engine that will power SpaceShipTwo into suborbital space, hopefully by the end of the year. If that goes well, then commercial flights will begin out of New Mexico in 2014.

I sincerely hope they’re right. I would love to see SpaceShipTwo flying into space from here in Mojave. It will be awesome to see. I want this industry to grow and thrive. Virgin’s success would help advance the entire commercial space sector.

It’s also time. Time for Branson and Virgin Galactic to stop talking and start flying. More than eight years have passed. Eight years of hype and promises and boasts about how awesome they are. And they still haven’t gotten SpaceShipTwo above 51,000 feet, and never under its own power.

There’s an irony here that Sir Richard should surely appreciate. Decades ago, he took on mighty British Airways with a single 747. The mighty carrier at first dismissed him, and then tried a bunch of dirty tricks to put him out of business. Despite all these efforts, Virgin Atlantic survived and thrived.

Now, the foot’s in the other mouth. Virgin Galactic is the erstwhile leader in the field, with its founder disdainful of his competition and convinced they can’t compete with his superior organization, resources and technology.

That leaves one task for Sir Richard’s unacknowledged competitors: Go punch some holes in the sky and prove him wrong. Show him you are for real. Take him down a notch or two.  A lot of people would really like that.

More fundamentally, we need a thriving, competitive suborbital space industry, not a monopoly that believes itself to be untouchable.