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.”


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.

  • Pride cometh before the fall.

  • As soon as 2015, when SpaceX puts people in orbit, Branson and his suborbital machine will look like small potatoes.

  • Paul451

    All the potential commercial crew teams could fly suborbital even more easily. (Dragon capsule + Grasshopper, for example.)

  • jamesh65

    But will they want to? I think Branson’s probably fairly close about his lead for commercial tourist flights. No-one else is close. Grasshopper is great, but is it worth using it for suborbital tourism? Esp. since Dragon isn’t really designed for it. And how long before its is at a stage where it could even be used for that sort of thing. Years.

  • delphinus100

    Some people will only *want* suborbital over orbital, some people will only be able to *afford* suborbital over orbital…

    (A few very deep pocketed individuals may even elect to do both. They’re not mutually exclusive.)

  • I think Doug missed the point of his bravado. Branson is a hard nose, take-no-prisoners capitalist. Think Tony Fernandes or Steve Jobs and you get the picture. People like this are not about the idealistic nature of spaceflight nor talk about their competitors as fellow pioneers in the road to the stars. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

  • Branson can say anything he wants. And he has. I don’t think his latest boasts are any more accurate than many of his previous ones.

  • J. Wouters

    Branson expects competition years behind. Arrogance or reality? The direct competition has not shown anything flying yet. Things can go fast, but this type of engineering, for save human flight, under heavy stress and duress requires time, including extensive testing, and 100km+ is still the stake and what the customers paid for. 60km just an (intended?) distraction (XCOR Lynx M1).
    If the current contenders don’t (safely) hurry, for example SpaceX could offer ORBITAL human flights at attractive prices well before the suborbitals have the opportunity to bring their product life cycles to maturity and profitability. The two might not be mutually exclusive but will put heavy pressure on choice and margins. SpaceX Grasshopper tests show they are close to reusabilty and simplified launch and land facilties. Once you are a HNWI you don’t want your co-HNWI seeing you driving a volkswagon from his Lambo. Additionally these flights are potential transporters, not ‘a’ to ‘a’ ‘fun’ flights.

  • J. Wouters

    Hey Doug, didn’t you do media for XCOR? And isn’t that former Lehman dropout Nelson a boaster of the same magnitude considering what is out there and promissed to customers.

  • I do not do media for XCOR. Nor did I do media in the past. I believe you’re thinking of Doug Graham.

    I assume the other comment refers to Andrew Nelson. He’s the company’s chief operating officer.

  • If I am reading his comments correctly, Branson doesn’t think XCOR can compete at all with Virgin Galactic. I don’t believe that is true. Branson’s estimate on how far XCOR’s Lynx Mark II is from flying into space (if that is what he is referring to) is significantly off base.

    The two companies are offering different experiences. XCOR’s approach is more “Right Stuff” in that the occupant is in the cockpit with the pilot. There are advantages in both approaches. There are also significant differences in operating costs where Lynx is designed for quick turnaround while VG has to replace the engine after every flight. A switch to a liquid engine would resolve that problem for VG.

    XCOR and SpaceX are approaching reusable orbital transportation in different ways. SpaceX is taking an existing rocket and trying to make it reusable. If it works, then it will make access to orbit much more affordable and more frequent. It wouldn’t necessarily kill suborbital flights. There is both tourism and science to do there.

    XCOR is building the Lynx as a fully reusable suborbital vehicle that will be low cost and fly into space multiple times in a day. The follow-on system is designed for reusable access to orbit based on the same philosophy of affordability and quick turnaround.

    That’s a significant different from Branson’s vision, which is to go suborbital and then figure out how to go point-to-point. Branson thinks like an airline operator that his is, thinking of going from Sydney to New York in two hours. The XCOR folks are interested in getting into orbit every day.