By Douglas Messier
Sonic booms are a way of life in Mojave. With Edwards Air Force Base just down the highway and an overland supersonic corridor overhead, we’re used to the Boom BOOMS that rattle our windows and shake our walls on an almost daily basis.
These can be unnerving events for newbies. I remember sitting in the Voyager restaurant years ago, before I even moved here, and almost jumping out of my booth when a sonic boom hit. The guys sitting in the booth – a pair of local pilots, I guessed – barely notice. A fighter jet out of Edwards, they said. Nothing to worry about. Just another Friday afternoon in Mojave.
On Nov. 1, a series of different booms hit the airport. They had nothing to do with flying faster than the speed of sound. Instead, they were the Thuds of peoples’ jaws simultaneously hitting the floor, followed by the THUNKS of these folks falling off their chairs. This happened five times in less than eight minutes.
The cause? Sir Richard Branson.
The British billionaire had flown here the previous day from his private Caribbean island to try to calm the waters after the crash of SpaceShipTwo. Although his efforts were sincere, the results were desultory.
When Branson stepped before the media microphones at 9:40 a.m. PDT, he looked like I felt: shocked, bewildered and sleep deprived. I had not slept a wink the night before; I can’t imagine that he had, either. Having flown in the previous day from Necker Island couldn’t have helped any. The burdens on his shoulders must have been crushing.
In short, he was a very sympathetic figure almost 24 hours after the accident. And then he began speaking.
After expressing condolences to the families of the pilots and giving a big thank you to everyone who had sent in messages of support, Branson began to spin the tragedy as only he could.
“We’ve been undertaking a comprehensive testing program for many years, and safety has always been our number one priority,” he declared. “This is the biggest test program every carried out in commercial aviation history precisely to ensure that this never happens to the public.”
Biggest in commercial aviation history? By what measure? Hype?
SpaceShipTwo’s 32 glide and 4 powered tests added up to just over 6.5 hours of flight time. Its hybrid engines had burned for all of 1 minute 6 seconds. The ship never got above 71,000 feet, far below its intended altitude of 339,000 feet.
By contrast, commercial aircraft go through a rigorous certification process involving thousands of hours of flight testing. SpaceShipTwo is completely exempt from certification, which means Virgin Galactic could declare the ship operational after a very small number of powered flights.
How is it that Branson – owner of multiple airlines, and the founder of the self-styled world’s first spaceline – didn’t understand any of this? How could he make that claim? In Mojave, where all this testing is taking place? The whole thing was as breathtaking in its scope as it was divorced from reality.
Branson continued by reading a moving note sent to Virgin Galactic from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield talking about the dangers and inevitable casualties that come with flight tests. It was a good choice; Hadfield is world famous for his on-orbit performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” song. But, Sir Richard didn’t stop there.
“Of all the moving words shared with us, a quote from the astronaut Lisa Nowak stood out….’”
Lisa Nowak? Oh! My! God!
Nowak is a former NASA astronaut who drove from Texas to Florida wearing an astronaut diaper to confront a romantic rival for the affections of a fellow astronaut. She was drummed out of by NASA and the U.S. Navy in disgrace.
Who wrote that statement? Branson? A PR flack? Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was standing right behind Branson as he spoke. Did he vet this statement? Surely he knew who Nowak was. The guy is NASA’s former chief of staff.
Whoever was responsible, Nowak’s moving words were removed from Sir Richard’s official remarks when Virgin published them. It’s as if he never quoted them.
Branson wrapped up his remarks in under four minutes and began to take questions. Thinking on his feet is not his strength even on the best of days. And this was a very bad day.
A journalist asked about reports that SpaceShipTwo couldn’t get to space even with its new engine. This is actually a report I’ve heard; it’s very credible. According to sources, Virgin Galactic officials were not able to give a clear answer about how high SpaceShipTwo could go to ticket holders who attended the Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary celebrations in Mojave four weeks earlier.
Branson said that he’s legally prohibited from commenting on investigation or the spacecraft until the NTSB completed its investigation. The response had nothing to do with a question – how high can this spaceship go with the engine you’re using – that any rocket company should be able to easily answer. How would that violate NTSB restrictions?
“And to be quite honest, I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they’re saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments,” he added, implying but not exactly saying that the critics are wrong.
I can assure you that some of the people saying this DO know what they’re talking about. On the other hand, Branson’s own statements over the years have been almost always at odds with realities on the ground in Mojave.
Branson, meet kettle. Kettle, meet Sir Richard. He’s a knight.
The questioning then turned to what Branson could say about the two pilots, whose names had still not been released. Clearly, he couldn’t say much until Scaled Composites identified them. If he had explained that, said a few general things about them without revealing their names, and promised to say more when he could, that would have been fine. But, he couldn’t stop there.
“The pilot worked for Scaled, not for Virgin Galactic. And I’ve actually, I’ve never met him,” Branson said, probably referring to Mike Alsbury, who perished in the crash.
Hearing that made people’s blood run cold. It was an unbelievable claim with one pilot dead and another in the hospital from a test flight of Branson’s spaceship. The founder of Virgin Galactic flies all the way to Mojave to comfort people who have just lost one of their own. And he then stands there at the spaceport and disavows any knowledge of one of them.
Branson certainly knew Siebold, who was overseeing the flight test program. And Alsbury had been co-pilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in April 2013 that Branson had viewed in person at Mojave. He congratulated Alsbury on the flight line and partied with him later. There are witnesses and pictures to all of that.
Did Branson just forget? Given the strain he was under, that would be certainly understandable. Branson later corrected himself on his blog, albeit downplaying his interactions with Alsbury to a handshake after the powered flight. (It was far more than that.)
The faux pas again raised questions about who prepped Branson. In addition to the prepared statement, his handlers could have given him a page of notes with information about the pilots and other subjects he might be asked about during the press conference.
Others suspected something else might have been at work other than a momentary memory lapse.
Virign Galactic’s first statement after SpaceShipTwo crashed pointedly referred to the flight test as having been undertaken by its partner, Scaled Composites. This description caused a few dropped jaws among those who had been following the flight test program closely.
For one, it was in direct opposition to the way that previous Virgin Galactic press releases had described successful flight tests as a joint collaboration between it and Scaled Composites. With SpaceShipTwo now spread out over five miles of the Mojave Desert, it suddenly became a Scaled flight test that Virgin seemingly had nothing to do with, right down to Branson never having met one of the pilots.
The claim really doesn’t pass the smell test. Although Scaled Composites maintained control over SpaceShipTwo during the flight test phase, it had already turned over the WhiteKnightTwo to Virgin Galactic. And the spacecraft couldn’t get launched without the mother ship.
Beyond that, Virgin Galactic has a lot to say about the flight test schedule, how many flights will be conducted, and what specific tests will be done during them. Branson’s people were in active roles in Mission Control during SpaceShipTwo’s fatal flight, sources report. And they were pushing an aggressive test schedule of only four to five flights with the new nylon engine.
A reporter asked what message Branson would send to ticket holders unnerved by what had happened on Friday morning. He began to talk about the numerous messages of support Virgin had received from ticket holders. Branson could simply have reiterated Virgin’s commitment to fly safely and left it at that. But, he went further.
“We even had somebody sign up specifically to become an astronaut yesterday in support of the program,” Branson said. “So I think that they’ve been patient to date. I think that most of them will be patient longer. We may lose one or two, but it doesn’t look like it.”
OMG! What a success story! Their only spaceship breaks up, the co-pilot dies, and not only has nobody canceled, Virgin actually managed to sell another ticket. I mean, are these guys good or what? Just imagine how many it could have sold if SpaceShipTwo had landed safely.
Alas, it wasn’t true. Multiple ticket holders had canceled within hours of the accident. Someone may well have signed up that day, but Branson’s offered nothing but his own word. And who was this person? Who sees a disaster like that and decides they want to buy a ticket on that thing? A friend of Branson’s? A business partner? All they’d have to do is put down a $25,000 deposit to make a reservation.
And why did Branson not know about the cancellations? A Virgin spokesmen later claimed Branson gave the most accurate information he had at the time. In a day of instant global communications, it’s difficult to believe he wouldn’t have known nearly 24 hours after the accident.
“Sir Richard,” I called out several times, hoping to get his attention. I was hoping to ask him if – after 10 years of effort – he has any faith in the ability of Scaled and Virgin Galactic to deliver a spaceship that can safely reach space.
I soon saw Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides step up behind his boss and nudge him. “You should go soon,” he says. “OK,” Branson replied.
Branson promised anyone who wanted a refund could have one, and says Virgin Galactic had not used any of the deposits. And with that he ended the press conference after only 7 minutes and 49 seconds. Branson ambled off with Whitesides trailed by a bevy of reporters and cameraman on his way to meet with his employees.
The timing was convenient. Keep Branson out in front of the press for as short of a time as possible. Then claim a more pressing engagement when the boss began to stumble or could have faced difficult questions.
It was a bravado performance; despite being sleep deprived and in obvious shock, Branson had stuck to the formula he’d been using on this program for 10 years: exaggerate, spin and mislead – and count on most reporters not to check the facts.
And some of it worked. Two days later, I would find myself on a radio talk show where my fellow guest, an otherwise well-informed NewSpace observer, repeated Branson’s boast of not losing any ticket holders but actually gaining customers after the crash even though Virgin had already admitted it was false.