Richard Branson Reflects on SpaceShipTwo Tragedy

Sir Richard Branson "high tens" with SpaceShip2 test pilot Mark Stuckey following the successful first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. At left is Mark Stuckey's wife Cheryl and at right is Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides..  The spacecraft was dropped rom its "mothership", WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sir Richard Branson “high tens” with SpaceShip2 test pilot Mark Stuckey following the successful first powered flight of SpaceShipTwo. At left is Mark Stuckey’s wife Cheryl and at right is Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides.. The spacecraft was dropped rom its “mothership”, WhiteKnight2 over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Richard Branson has posted a message that he sent to Virgin Galactic ticket holders about the crash of SpaceShipTwo and the death of Mike Alsbury in October. The post — and the reader comments below it — are worth a look.

There are a couple of noteworthy sections:

“As I travelled from my home to Mojave that Friday evening, I found myself questioning seriously for the first time, whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances.”

Too little, too late.

This is a question Branson should have asked himself  when he launched the program. Or after three Scaled Composites engineers died in 2007 during a cold-flow test. Or when SpaceShipTwo ended up upside down during a near fatal flight test in September 2011.

What, exactly, did Branson think he was getting into? Is “screw it, let’s do it” an excuse for not thinking through it?

The specter of sudden, violent death hangs over every human spaceflight program. That’s been true for more than 50 years. It doesn’t matter how many engineers you have working on a project, or how good they are, or how much money you pour into a program.

This is a dangerous business. Death has been infrequent, but when it comes it hits hard. If you want to be flying every day and launching thousands of people into space, you have to understand the risks you are taking.

These are first generation space vehicles, not modern airliners with decades of heritage to draw upon. There are no mandatory government safety standards. The FAA has no certification regime in place. This is the way the industry wanted it.

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Ticket holders will have to acknowledge the risks they’re taking before they fly. And if they fly from New Mexico, they will need to sign away their right to sue Branson’s company for deaths or injuries except in cases of gross negligence or intentional harm. Virgin thought this protection was so important it threatened to break its lease at Spaceport America.

The informed consent regime under which commercial space companies operate depends largely on the good faith of spacecraft builders and operators. These companies will have every incentive to put safety first and foremost; if they don’t, they’ll be out of business. This places an enormous burden on the industry to behave properly.

In his letter, Branson assured the ticket holders that Virgin Galactic is fully committed to keeping its end of the bargain.

“And so Virgin Galactic goes on, with an unwavering commitment to safety and a renewed sense of purpose.”

The company may well have a renewed sense of purpose. It’s unclear whether it is being directed in the safest manner.

The decision to work double time on finishing the second SpaceShipTwo by April is mystifying. This program has been going on for 10 years. Why the rush to be back in flight test in six months?

Why not wait until the NTSB finishes its accident investigation and publishes its conclusions? The investigation could well point to significant changes required in the vehicle, crew training, operating procedures and safety culture. Wouldn’t the wait be worth it? Especially if it saved lives?

The worst thing that could happen is if more people get killed in a rush to return to flight and begin commercial service. Virgin Galactic likely can’t survive another accident. The nascent commercial space tourism industry would be severely damaged. The risks are enormous,.

The flight test schedule Virgin had in place before the accident didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence that safety was the highest priority. The plan was to conduct only five powered tests — with a brand new type of engine — before placing Branson and his son aboard to inaugurate commercial service.

That wouldn’t have been enough to properly test the ship in powered flight. And it would have been a much lower number of flights — even counting three successful three tests with a different engine — than what Virgin Galactic promised investors and customers.

Branson answers his own question with a definitive yes, it’s worth the risk. It would difficult to envision any other response at this point. Branson has put so much of his money, prestige and reputation into this project that it would be very difficult for him to back down.

The question is whether Branson really, truly understands the risks involved. If the moments of doubt he had while flying to Mojave after the accident don’t result in serious changes, it will all be for naught.