Opinion: Richard Branson, Brian Cox and the Science of Awesomeness

The Virgin Galactic Show Rolls on Through Season 13
with a Very Special Guest Star

Mojave control tower (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Richard Branson was back in Mojave last month for the latest episode of The Virgin Galactic Show,  the world’s  longest-running reality program about space travel.

Accompanying the billionaire were his son, Sam, and celebrity scientist and television presenter Brian Cox. GeekWire called the trio a “star studded cast,” a label that was probably more accurate than the writer realized.

The script for this visit was virtually identical to the one used when Richard Branson was here back in early December for the first glide flight of SpaceShipTwo No. 2, Unity.

Pilots Todd Ericson and Kelly Latimer would accelerate the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship Eve down a runway for its 226th flight. They would spend about 45 to 50 minutes flying the giant twin fuselage aircraft and its payload, Unity, up to about 50,000 feet.

Once all the check had been made and everything was deemed ready, the pilots would drop Unity over the High Desert for the 33rd glide flight of the SpaceShipTwo program. Pilots Dave Mackay and C.J. Sturckow would put the space plane through its paces for a dozen minutes or so, expanding the flight envelope, before landing back at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Richard Branson’s role was in all this was pretty simple: to stand on flight line near the Mojave control tower and squint into the bright blue desert sky as Unity glided back to the Earth.

To squint and to smile. To smile his famous toothy smile as he looked up in joy and wonderment at the awesomeness of the flight while photographers and cameramen captured the moment for later transmission to the world.

Cox, who was traveling with Branson as he filmed a documentary for the BBC about commercial spaceflight, was right beside the billionaire the whole time, looking upward with the genuine joy and wonderment of someone seeing all this awesomeness for the first time.

The pictures of Branson and Cox were quickly distributed to a waiting world via Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms. The message was clear: here was another successful milestone on Virgin Galactic’s path to becoming the world’s first space line.

The film footage was used for the requisite 3-minute YouTube video that Virgin Galactic produces after most flight tests. (They’re even titling them episodes now.) Branson can be heard repeating the same things he’s been saying over and over again for more than 12 years.

He talks of his hopes about opening up space to hundreds and then thousands and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people, and how SpaceShipTwo will lead to rapid point-to-point travel, and how Virgin Galactic will be flying people into deep space eventually, and how all sorts of other science fictiony things will happen in the decades ahead that nobody’s even thought of yet that would blow our minds if we knew what they were.

Of course, the timeline has shifted a bit. Branson originally hoped to fly hundreds and then thousands of people into space beginning in 2007. Now, that goal has been moved to some point in the not-too distant future. As for all the other wonderful things Branson mentioned, he is now hoping all that will happen by the end of the 21st century.

There was something off about his line delivery in this episode, however. For whatever reason — the setting, jet lag, sleep deprivation or the sheer monotony of repeating the same old 12-year old dialogue  — Branson seemed somewhat subdued. The words were there, but the enthusiasm was lacking.

If Branson is somehow less enthusiastic about the whole SpaceShipTwo program after a dozen years, nobody could really blame him. The entire venture has taken on a much more somber and serious tone since the  Halloween 2014 crash that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo, Enterprise, and killed co-pilot Mike Alsbury.

Before the accident, Branson promoted the program relentlessly, using the program to help give the Virgin Group  a “halo effect,” i.e., to make it seem cooler, hipper, more high tech, whatever you want to call it. Alas, the accident created exactly the wrong kind of halo.

Since that awful day, Branson has been far less vocal in his promotion of his space company. He no longer is making predictions about when SpaceShipTwo would be ready to carry passengers. Before the accident, his perpetually optimistic predictions were treated with amusement by a media that viewed SpaceShipTwo as a novelty. Afterward, they became a bad joke.

With Branson largely silenced, Virgin Galactic has been able to set realistic expectations for Unity’s flight test program. That’s a positive development, yet it probably takes some of the fun out of the program for the boss.

It’s no secret that Virgin Galactic has been a money pit. It’s a company that has been in pre-revenue mode for nearly 13 years. The reality is there is probably no way for the company to make a profit flying passengers and scientific experiments to suborbital space. The expenditures for research and development, and the high costs of the flights themselves, likely prohibit it.

Although SpaceShipTwo remains the most high-profile part of Virgin Galactic, the company’s hope for revenues have shifted about 100 miles south to Long Beach. There engineers are developing LauncherOne, a low-cost booster that will orbit small satellite from a modified 747 jetliner. A week after Branson’s visit to Mojave, the billionaire announced the creation of a separate company, Virgin Orbit, to oversee the launch business.

So, one could excuse Branson if he seemed somewhat subdued during his February visit to Mojave. Fortunately, Cox was plenty excited for the both of them. Speaking before employees in the Virgin Galactic hangar, he gave the program an unqualified endorsement that, given his celebrity status, was sure to reverberate far beyond the isolated confines of Mojave.

“People ask me a lot because I’m a space geek and I’m obviously an evangelist for space, ‘Would you fly to space?” Cox said. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well yes and no, because in some sense it’s a dangerous thing to do.’ However, the moment I walked in this hangar and saw that aircraft, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now is 100 percent yes.”

No, Brian! No! Nope! Non! Nyet! Nee! Nage! M hai!

You don’t decide whether that it’s safe to fly on a spaceship based on how awesome the vehicle looks. This is a rocket plane. Rockets have an unfortunate tendency to blow up and fail in any number of catastrophic ways. The fact that it looks really cool does not negate that reality.

This is a dangerous business. Four people have died in the SpaceShipTwo program, and Virgin Galactic has never gotten anywhere near space. The last thing this industry is more RAH RAH. Especially from a celebrity scientist who parachutes into Mojave and get overawed by how cool everything looks.

If you’re going to lend your considerable reputation to this program, at least hold out for more than a tour of the hangar and the chance to watch a glide flight. Stephen Hawking got a free ticket to space on this thing.

Now, Cox’s endorsement seemed to be the money shot that Virgin Galactic was looking for in this episode. It appears midway through the video, ending just before video of SpaceShipTwo being dropped from WhiteKnightTwo.  It would seem to be perfect, right?

Maybe not. It appears that sometime during the past week, the video was removed from Virgin Galactic’s YouTube channel. It’s not clear why this was done. Fortunately, another YouTube user posted it here,

It’s been more than a month since the last glide flight. I suspect another one is coming up soon, after which there may well be another episode of The Virgin Galactic Show on YouTube.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Great article, but it is actually Season 18, but it appears you need to go to some of the paper media to find information from the earlier seasons as much has been lost in the mists of time on the Internet.

    https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/biography

    “He has described Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial
    spaceline, as being “the greatest adventure of all”. Space travel has
    been a dream for Branson since he watched the moon landings on TV, and
    he registered the Virgin Galactic name in 1999. Testing for commercial
    service is underway, with Branson planning to join his family on the
    first space flight.”

  • Apparently Mr. Branson is pleasantly unaware of Brian Cox’s rapidly diminishing credibility in the reality based scientific world.

  • Dave Salt

    Dr Cox was supposed to have visited Blue Origin after this event… so, maybe the contrast wasn’t very flattering for Branson, who is more of a Barnum than a Bezos.

  • duheagle

    Well, he’s all-in on Global Warming so that can’t be why. Is it that “past climate changes made proto-humans smarter” thing? Or is it something else entirely?

  • JamesG

    Once again… keep in mind that VG keeps a bunch of people in Mojave and elsewhere employed, has produced a whole lot more actual hardware than most “new space” projects, and Virgin Brands Inc. has never and doesn’t need to support this project at all.

  • With Brian Cox, it’s quite a bit else.

    Neil DeGrasse Tryson suffers similar but not identical problems as science presenters and science populists. No actual or credible current science, no addressing current controversies and apologists for religion and industry. The real problems among working scientists is that they are not even current on the science.

  • duheagle

    We are definitely agreed on Neil DeGrasse Tyson being a blowhard and an embarrassment. The people who refer to him as “the new Carl Sagan” are, in my view, unwittingly speaking ill of the dead.

  • Douglas Messier

    Not really in a position to be accusing anyone else of being a blowhard and embarrassment there, Doogie Howseagle.

    But, thanks for stopping by.

  • Douglas Messier

    You can say much the same about SLS and Orion, Huntsville and the U.S. government. Not sure what your point is here.

  • JamesG

    True. But of course that is public money to which we taxpayers should expect to be well spent and have a return on.

    The point being VG doesn’t owe you or anyone besides its investors and customers anything.

  • Douglas Messier

    Well, there’s the good people of New Mexico, who invested $225 million into Spaceport America, and the people of Abu Dhabi, whose government put up $390 million.

    Those expenditures have been much more burdensome on poverty wracked New Mexico than richer than rich Abu Dhabi. Members of the royal family spend nearly as much trying to outdo each other on super yachts.

  • Actually his Cosmos remake was great and to his credit he didn’t exploit it to death. But it was all downhill from there. At least he isn’t writing books pretending to be serious. There are major scientific battles being fought on the front lines, but old tired warn out science and memes of science aren’t any of them. Most of the cranks are fighting imaginary battles.

  • JamesG

    SA is a separate issue IMO. VG could have gone anywhere, literally, besides NM. Should have actually. But NM threw in a can’t refuse package at Branson.

    Your hate-on for Virgin is irrational at times…

  • Douglas Messier

    How this conversation has basically gone:

    JamesG: Well, it’s all private money so lay off VG, man!
    Me: Yes, except for the $615 million in public money.
    JamesG: Well, that’s different because….um….NM forced ’em to go there….and…um, anyway….you suck!

  • duheagle

    Always happy to help out.

  • JamesG

    If that’s the way you’ve taken it. Oh well.

  • Hemingway

    Here is where our New Mexico tax money is going at Spacepork America – relay races! I wonder if there will be any profit in this event. I know that there will be a lot of publicity.

    https://www.facebook.com/spaceportamericarealyrace/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE&fref=nf

  • Hemingway

    Excuse me for yawning – In an recent interview with The Telegraph, Sir Richard Branson hopes to have the first Virgin Galactic passenger flight in space by the end of 2018!

    https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/sir-richard-branson-vows-virgin-180646321.html

  • JamesG

    It could happen. All that would need is for Virgin’s board to decide to take the risk of actually flying pas…. participants instead of it being the nice, safe(relatively, from a corporate liability perspective) publicity exercise it has been up ’til now.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Anything could happen, but the key point, does anyone care anymore? VG is as outdated as the idea of using flying boats for luxury airliners. One of those nice ideas time has just passed by…

  • ThomasLMatula

    Interesting article. I thought there were around 800 eager space tourists, has the number actually dropped?

    “Despite the idea proving popular with future travellers – some 500 potential customers have spent $250,000 on reserving their spot on one of its trips– it is perhaps the one business he has found the hardest to get off the ground.”

    Also it appears he is moving more and more away from involvement in his business.

    “But, as he freely admits, Branson is spending a significant proportion of his time on charitable projects, leaving Bayliss and his team to get on with continuing his business legacy.”

    So VG appears to be really the last string he needs to tie up before focusing entirely on his charity and hobbies.

  • Douglas Messier

    It’s certainly possible. Depends upon how many flight tests they do, the frequency at which they are done, and how well everything goes. Thus far:

    Captive carry in early September
    Glide flight early December
    Glide flight late December
    Glide flight late February

    They’re talking about 8 to 10 glide flights then an unknown number of powered flights. I had heard they wanted to start powered flights in June, but it’s already April so that was probably optimistic.

    It’s possible they will get back to where they were at the time of the accident — fourth powered flight — sometime in the Fall, about three years after the crash.

  • Hemingway

    Does anyone know the status of the SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine? Have not heard a word since 2014.

  • Douglas Messier

    They’ve gone back to rubber-nitrous oxide. Been testing it and say it is running a lot smoother. I’m still not sure they can get to 100 km (62 miles) with a full load of passengers. They’ve been telling customers 55 miles. Virgin is contractually obligated to get customers up to 50 miles.

  • Hemingway

    Thanks

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s a good question that I should have raised in the story.

    While Branson is out here watching glide flights, Musk is landing rockets and Bezos has flown his vehicle to space five times (six if you count flights above 50 miles). Bezos’ technology is scalable.

  • JamesG

    There is probably a bigger market for luxury flying boats and travel as their is for the entire sub-orbital tourism biz. Just sayin’.

    There will be people who want the “Right Stuff” experience of a high G vertical takeoff followed by a capsule under parachute, vs. other who would prefer a sci-fi ways of ticking that arbitrary altitude. I’d say its still 50-50. But VG does need to get a move on before someone finally does hang a rocket motor under a leer jet and takes all their lunch money.

  • ThomasLMatula

    If Richard Branson wants to really build a space tourist empire he should cut a deal with Jeff Bezos for the new Shepard. It would be a good complement to SpaceShipTwo at Spaceport America. It would also be easy to get SA licensed for it due to its location and existing history of suborbital flights.

    Jeff Bezos is after bigger things than space tourism and would probably be glad to out source it, simply building New Shepards for others to fly.

    If VG is really sharp it could even sell a space tourist package, A ride in both a New Shepard and SpaceShiptwo along with a flight in Zero-G’s B727

    for those seriously into thrills. Maybe even go further and build some simulate Mars habitats for the tourists to camp out in between thrill rides, making SA into a space theme park for the rich and famous.

  • JamesG

    Depends on if he considers a VG a charity or a hobby… 😉

  • ThomasLMatula

    The fundamental problem with Spaceport America is they see it as merely a launch facility, not as the space development facility envisioned in the original feasibility study, business plan and white paper. As a result they are leaving lots of space business opportunities unexplored that could really move it forward. Instead they merely have these PR stunts.

  • SteveW

    But Tom, where will the qualified workers come from? It’s not likely that the younger workers you find at BO and SpaceX would settle in Truth or Consequences. That would seem like a dead end from that an upward career path. It is pretty well understood that a local spaceport is not necessary to run a space manufacturing business. R&D, yes, but those are general small scale and nowhere near the hyped 3,500 jobs promised the taxpayers when they were selling S/A. For instance, why didn’t Vector locate at S/A or Mojave rather than Tucson?

  • publiusr

    You did a great job.