By Douglas Messier
Back in February, Professor Brian Cox traveled here to Mojave with his friends Richard and Sam Branson to watch the third glide flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity.
Bowled over by what he saw even before the suborbital tourism vehicle glided overhead, Cox gave what amounted to a rousing endorsement of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo to a gathering of company employees.
“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 with Richard Branson seated beside him. “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.”
What was not widely known at the time was that Cox was filming a BBC-commissioned documentary about commercial space. And the company the corporation commissioned to co-produce it, Sundog Pictures, is owned and run by none other than Cox’s good friend, Sam Branson.
The BBC’s decision to commission Sundog Pictures for the documentary has raised questions in the British press about possible conflict of interest and bias.
Cox’s endorsement Virgin Galactic and friendship with the Bransons also raise questions about how rigorous he will be in examining the troubled SpaceShipTwo program, which has claimed four lives over the past decade without once flying anywhere near space.
Ben Dowell at RadioTimes.com reports on the questions that have arisen about the BBC’s decision and the corporation’s push back against criticism.
The BBC has denied suggestions that the commission represents a conflict of interest and insisted that the programme will focus on space exploration and space mining generally and would not be a plug for Branson’s company.
A spokeswoman said that it also promised to profile the work of other bodies including NASA, Space X and Deep Space Industries and Blue Origin – the aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight service founded by Amazon tycoon Jeff Bezos.
Sundog is co-producing the documentary even as it is under a six-month suspension from receiving commissions from the BBC. The suspension began in February after the BBC discovered problems with the company’s documentary, Reggie Yates: Hidden Australia, which ran on BBC 3 earlier this year.
The Corporation is completing an investigation into an alleged breach of editorial standards in a section of the programme, where an Aboriginal wake was allegedly filmed as if it were a party scene. Sundog has been suspended from future commissions until the matter is formally resolved.
The commercial space programme show was commissioned before the suspension which is why it has been allowed to go ahead. But RadioTimes.com understands that co-producers Voltage TV Productions have been given “editorial responsibility for delivery of the programme” because of the suspension.
Cox criticized the RadioTimes article on Twitter and assured the public the documentary would not just be a plug for Branson, Virgin Galactic or the industry as a whole.
The tone of this article is slightly wrong. I will be ensuring that the program is ‘rigorous’! I don’t need TV execs for that 😉 https://t.co/pPeLHfgcOX
— Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox) June 6, 2017
However, Cox was not so careful during his visit to Mojave in February. A Virgin Galactic produced YouTube video shows him seated between Richard Branson and CEO George Whitesides as he expresses his confidence in and willingness to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo. His words are inter cut with scenes of the spacecraft being dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship.
The video essentially amounts to a celebrity endorsement of Virgin Galactic and its spacecraft by someone who is supposed to be doing a “rigorous” documentary. How closely is Cox really going to look at the risks of a program in which he has expressed absolute confidence that involves two of his good friends?
This is hardly a minor issue. Space tourism is a dangerous industry which for which there are no mandatory safety standards in the United States. There have been no shortage of shallow media coverage of the industry over the past 12 years.
The awkward questions posed by Cox’s statement could explain why the video was removed from Virgin Galactic’s YouTube channel not long after it was posted. The promotional piece was saved from oblivion by another YouTube user before Virgin Galactic deleted it.