During a press conference on Saturday here in Mojave, Richard Branson asserted that despite the catastrophic failure of Virgin Galactic’s only spacecraft, the company had still managed to sell another ticket for it joyride to suborbital space while not one of the nearly 800 current ticket holders had asked for their deposits back.
It was a helluva success story, an incredible tribute to Branson’s marketing genius in that he could still sell tickets even as SpaceShipTwo lay strewn across five miles of desolate desert north of Mojave. Think of how many tickets they could have sold had the flight succeeded. Virgin Galactic can’t win for losing.
The story also didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
You would have thought that some ticket holders — or at least one — would have asked for refunds, if over fears for their personal safety, frustration over the already lengthy flight delays, an unwillingness to wait even longer, or some combination of the above. It just seemed to good to be true.
And it was. Later in the day, I spoke to a source with close ties to a number of current ticket holders who said he nearly blew a gasket watching Branson’s press conference. And not just over the ticket claim. The source told me that said several ticket holders had already contacted Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough on Friday, requesting a refund of their deposits. Attenborough promised to have the money back to them in a week.
Why Branson claimed otherwise on Saturday is anyone’s guess. The only thing I know for sure from three years in Mojave is that Branson’s statements about Virgin Galactic are nearly always at odds with reality here in the desert. Either he’s being misled by his people in Mojave, in which case he needs to fire some of them. Or he’s saying things that he wishes would happen, or that further whatever marketing, sales or publicity objectives he has at the time.
Now comes a report in The Independent that not only confirms what my source told me, but indicates it could be worse than even he thought. [Virgin Galactic Crash: ‘Dozens’ of Investors Consider Pulling Out of Space Programme]. Branson, it seems, has now lost Princess Beatrice as a customer.
Peter Ulrich von May, an asset manager based in Switzerland, is one of those who has demanded a refund. “I want out. I subscribed seven years ago at 63, am still an active private pilot and in good health but who knows how long it will now take. I have already informed VG of my wish – no reply yet,” he told The Independent.
Another of those who may ask for their money back said some people are “die-hard Richard Branson supporters and they will go on it whatever”.
However, speaking under condition of anonymity, they revealed that a group of more than 30 others have been talking about asking for their money back.
“Before this tragic event happened I had been thinking of pulling my money anyhow because there had been various reports saying it doesn’t stand a chance of getting into space,” they added. “I am giving serious thought to pulling out.”
Igor Kutsenko, who runs an advertising agency in Moscow and plans to go into space with his parents, said: “We were all shocked and disappointed by the tragic news. We are in the project from very beginning. My parents are getting older and I’m only worried that their physical ability to participate in this obviously challenging adventure is deteriorating. But we stay firm in our desire to make this suborbital flight.”
In response to the claim that more than 30 customers are considering their position in the aftermath of the crash, a spokesperson for Virgin Galactic admitted a number of people have asked for their money back.
“We can confirm that less than three per cent of people have requested refunds,” the spokesman said.