Virgin Galactic Made Pre-emptive Strike Against London Sunday Times Story

Credit: Ken Brown
WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo in flight. (Credit: Ken Brown)

Parabolic Arc has obtained the following email from Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough to the company’s ticket holders concerning the London Sunday Times story that I co-authored with Jon Ungoed-Thomas about cracks in WhiteKnightTwo’s wings. It’s worth a read.

From: Future Astronauts
Date: May 10, 2014
Subject: Virgin Galactic Update

Dear all,

We wanted to give you a quick heads-up that we believe the UK Sunday Times may run a negative story on Virgin Galactic tomorrow.

We don’t know all the angles but from what we can tell, the story appears to be predicated on false or deliberately misleading and exaggerated rumours from “off the record”, nameless contributors. Although that means we cannot be sure of the sources of the mischief, we suspect they are linked in some way to the author Tom Bower, who has made a living by trying to discredit famous personalities, including Richard. The Sunday Times has previous form in knocking Richard and various Virgin companies, including Virgin Galactic and has had a commercial relationship with Bower. So, despite the fact that we have vigorously rebuffed the points, we do expect the story to run and for it to maintain a negative stance.

This is unfortunate because, as you will know from last week’s Future Astronaut Newsletter, things continue to move forward strongly in Mojave thanks to the dedication and skill of our incredible team. Since we sent that communication we have successfully undertaken the first of the qualifying firings of the rocket motor in preparation for the rapid series of powered test flights, and we expect WhiteKnightTwo to emerge from the hanger shortly, following her exhaustive annual inspection, to test the upgraded undercarriage and brakes which have been fitted in preparation for commercial service.

Sorry to have to bother you with this over the weekend but felt it was right on this occasion to pre-warn!

Should there be need for any further clarification once the article is published we will write again, and as always please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Clare and Gemma with any questions.

Thank you for your continued support and enjoy the remainder of the weekend.

Best wishes,

Stephen Attenborough
Commercial Director

Editor’s Note: As you can see, Mr. Attenborough pre-emptively trashed the story prior to publication. He also somehow managed to blame author Tom Bower for the whole thing even though Bower was only quoted in the story and did not do any of the reporting on it.

It’s ironic that Mr. Attenborough makes such misstatements and spreads innuendo while decrying the accuracy and fairness of an article he hasn’t even read yet.

To repeat what I have said previously: We stand by the story. It is accurate. The sources are credible and knowledgeable. They know a helluva lot more about what’s happening with WhiteKnightTwo, SpaceShipTwo and the flight test program than Mr. Attenborough, who is a public relations and marketing guy sitting in London.

In fairness, Mr. Attenborough is neither a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, meaning there are limitations to what he can be told about such matters due to America’s strict ITAR regulations. So, he may not know all the details of all the problems that exist in the program.

One further issue for ticket holders to consider: my reporting on Virgin Galactic’s problems with SpaceShipTwo’s engine and schedule delays have been far more accurate than the assurances coming out of the company over the last few years that all was well and that spaceflights were around the corner.

Update: Over at Gizmodo, Matt Novak has a great summary of Virgin’s public claims and promises about spaceflight, which actually go all the way back to 1999:

15 Years of Virgin Galactic’s Failed Space Age Promises

  • Carolynne Campbell

    They’re rattled! Boy do they have to deliver now.

  • Douglas Messier

    That worries me a bit. They say safety comes first and they won’t be rushed. OK, I take them at their word on that, especially since the boss and the kids will be aboard the first commercial flight.

    But, they’re also talking about three or four test flights before declaring SpaceShipTwo operational. My sources tell me it’s a very aggressive flight program. To work, everything has to go perfectly, and that’s rare in flight test.

    If they do three or four more powered test flights, that would be six or seven total. It’s on par with what Scaled Composites did for SpaceShipOne. The predecessor had six powered flights, three of them into space, which was considered aggressive at that time. And it was aggressive to fly the two Ansari X Prize winning flights by the end of 2004 to win the $10 million. Of course, SpaceShipOne was shipped off to a museum, while its successor is going to fly billionauts and millionauts.

  • Glorfindel

    No kidding… They are truly opaque.

    You couldn’t pay me any sum of cash to fly WK2 or SS2.

    I used to be a big supporter of VG, but not anymore. They are seriously hurting the industry with their disregard for safety and over-emphasis on marketing.

  • Nickolai

    Really? I’m not familiar with the UK’s libel law, but I do recall being quite appalled when Tesla’s case against Top Gear was thrown out, despite, supposedly, Tesla presenting evidence that Top Gear wrote the script for the show where they tested the roadster before even receiving the car. It seemed obvious that Top Gear faked a lot of what happened, and yet the case was thrown out. Is the law really radically different for print vs TV?

  • Nickolai

    “rapid series of powered test flights” That’s interesting…

  • Carolynne Campbell

    I’m not familiar with the Tesla case, but you do say ‘supposedly’, so perhaps the case was decided on the facts. I do know that, in the UK, in a libel case the burden of proof is on the defense, which makes people very careful indeed.
    Branson is not slow to sue, he did sue Tom Bower before and lost. I do know that the Sunday Times always takes legal advice on stories such as this.
    BTW, I’m no fan of ‘Top Gear’, they’ve never let the facts slow them down.
    Doug has a co-by-line on the ST story and I do know he’s extremely careful about what he publishes.
    Libel law in the UK makes no distinction about the medium of publication, or even where an allegation is published. Many cases arise from matters outside the UK but result in suits here (known over here as’libel tourism’).

  • justchaz

    “Pre-emptive strike?” Please don’t dive into click bait territory. A bit of the Arc- Branston angst bubbling through here with a defensiveness that rings too personal, probably due to having contributed to the Times story. A “trashed” story is not what I read in the letter. It starts at par and then goes almost pleading at the end. Calmez vous.

  • Scott

    I know Doug Messier and have known him for a number years which encompass and include the years since Virgin Galactic went into business.
    Doug is an honest and professional journalist that works very hard to present truthful and balanced journalism almost to fault. Doug has to live with these VG people and in my opinion since he is in Mojave where VG is working he goes way over-board making sure he has it right. It is hard being a journalist in a small place like Mojave when he knows if he tells the truth that VG and its people will come down hard on him since VG and Sir Richard care nothing about telling the truth but only in selling tickets and getting free publicity. To the wind goes truth and here comes more bull and more publicity stunts and stories on movie stars that have supposedly bought tickets–I say let’s hold you to the standards that Doug holds himself to and see you prove all the hot air you are out blowing around.
    I wish Doug would write the stuff that everyone in Mojave actually knows about Virgin Galactic out there, but he will not write anything that is not proven true and is true.
    Steven Attenborough should get a job with a real company run by a real person but Steven does regularly get the crap jobs of having to stick up for Branson in some very demeaning situations where he is clearly asked to say and do things that he does not really want to do.
    Virgin Galactic ought to get out of the commercial space business and stop being jerks which in my opinion is hurting the entire new world of commercial space. I mean who wants to be compared to Richard Branson?
    “Oh, so you’re in the commercial space business, do you know Richard Branson?”
    How demeaning is that to a professional aerospace engineer with a lifetime of experience and dedication to the aerospace industry and the fledgling new private, commercial space business.
    The real question is: Can Sir Richard get it up?

  • justchaz

    Good Grief! You lost me at this ” VG and its people will come down hard on him since VG and Sir Richard care nothing about telling the truth”. Hyperbolic much? So you are a purist, technology for technology sake and not for the economic value? If you are going to support Doug, at least sound a bit mature and in control of your emotions. Doug wrote a piece some weeks ago that was comprehensive and told of the good and the bad in an objective manner that I know took him a while to put together. We mostly loved it. This little feud about a crack is just that, a little feud. Unless you are ready to pronounce that VG cannot fix a little crack and are never going to get off the ground, then isn’t what we are quibbling about, simply, worst case, a problem that can be fixed? WK2 is the first iteration of its design and if problems arise, engineers can fix it. They, vastly more than you, want to see this succeed. Their livelihoods and futures depend on it. We are just opinion vessels. Can we not miss the forest for the trees? Again, breathe, exhale.

  • BeanCounterFromDownUnder

    Still waiting to see them fly a true sub-orbital powered flight. It’s been a long time coming and still is. SpaceX which has been compared to VG have also slipped schedules but now they are flying although still having technical issues. Still they have gone through several different vehicle and engine versions and they fly orbital which is a whole different ballgame to what VG are trying to do.
    We shall see. The jury is still out but getting impatient.

  • Scott

    Listen Justchaz, I know who you are and who your work for.

    Paid bloggers is Sir Richards deal and you are the person that will do anything for money, so let’s just say you have no part in this discussion since you are a ….

    I am not an opinion vessel.

    Hidy Ho here we go.

    Time to perform on your promises and your contracts and pay your debts to the good people of New Mexico and your would be astronauts, oh, and don’t forget Abu Dhabi.

    Can you return their money, or the money of the astronauts?

    Or, did you spend it?

    What about all the promises you made to Abu Dhabi and the now billions you owe them?

    I’m not sure they actually think you are not as glamorous as you think you are.

    Audacious is what I would call it all, or maybe desperate would be a better description of the mess you have made of it all.

    Tick tock, tick tock: time is up.

    You should probably reconsider taking your children with you on the first flight–maybe go it alone.

    Stop picking on the messenger which in this case is Doug Messier a highly respected person and journalist with real integrity.

    You–Sir Richard–chose to attack Doug who only reported the truth once again. Too bad the news was devastating but accurate. The Mother Ship has cracks in its wings where they attach to the plane.

    Sounds unusual for a plane to have its wings fall off and it might be a problem.

    Doug also reported that the motor for Spaceship 2 did not work properly and that it caused vibrations that would have shaken the plane to bits if it had not been shut down.

    Your initial response was that Doug was wrong and that he made it all up, but you ditched the engine and started work on another design and are now testing a new engine.

    True or False?

    Seems like Doug is doing his job as a journalist and is reporting true and accurate information and since the news is not what you wanted to have published you attacked him.

    Someone here is on the wrong side of ethics.

    Steven, are you there, I would not go on the first flight if I were you.

    The odds of taking another one for Sir Richard and living to tell about it are getting slim.

    We are getting close here to moving from civil to criminal–you know–what do you know and when did you know it?

    The story that there is a Grand Jury about to be sequestered in New Mexico to look into the whole affair may be closer to the truth than Virgin’s boisterous and provocative behavior would let on.

    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/05/susana-martinez-new-mexico-whistleblower-suit-jon-barela

    Can we miss the forest for the trees?

    Can we miss the phony from the real?

    Again, what do you know and when did you know it?

  • Rob Frize

    Doug, do you have a citation for the 3 or 4 test flights? All I can find (albeit after a brief Sunday mornng search) is The Scotsman interview with David Mackay http://bit.ly/1hUVkBZ but that’s just a weak “it is estmated…”

    I’m interested in the comparison between their and XCOR’s test programme, after Searfoss’s comment yesterday about 40-50 test flights over 12-18 months on Lynx. To me, his statement sounds like a better estimate of how long testing of a full commercial suborbital system might take.

    Of course, VG might do 3-4 test flights, then a series of “fit-out” flights, then some more “pre-commercial operations” flights before starting operations.

  • Douglas Messier

    Everyone please calm down.

    Scott, I really appreciate the support here. It’s not easy living in Mojave and seeing people and having to write how their program is in bad shape. Virgin has been trashing me privately for months. I know who’s doing it, and I will respond to it forcefully and accurate when the time is right.

    I don’t think justchaz is a Branson flunkie. The writer responded to other posts in a way that indicates he/she is not. I think the rebuke he gave me here was rather mild. I wasn’t really bothered by it.