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.