Questions Raised Over Brian Cox Documentary on Virgin Galactic & Commercial Space

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By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

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.

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.

External Links

BBC Commissions Documentary About Commercial Space Fronted by Brian Cox: RadioTimes.com

Why did the BBC buy Branson show made by his own son? Corporation accused of conflict of interest over doc about commercial space travel): The Daily Mail

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  • Robert G. Oler

    curious…

  • Hemingway
  • Douglas Messier

    Yes, it’s the same one at the top of the story. Cox’s statement starts at about 1:25.

  • duheagle

    The giddy enthusiasm of Mr Cox is perhaps explained as much by his being British as by his being chums of the Bransons. The U.K. is a country that, for decades, has deliberately chosen to punch well below its weight in space activities of all kinds. Virgin Galactic is, for the most part – and for good or ill – an American operation. But the high-profile figurehead is definitely British. For any long-time British “space geek” that must seem like a great deal indeed when put beside what little else such people have to “nourish” them. Surrey Satellite and Clyde Space are all well and good, but not very sexy. Reaction Engines and Skylon are more than sexy, but also a long way from fielding anything flyable. There may be more than a bit of the old “a poor thing, but mine own” going on here too. Final judgement will have to await release of the finished documentary.

    One should understand that “the Beeb” is horrendously biased pretty much as a matter of course. It’s like PBS and NPR rolled together and with its own police force. Much of its time seems devoted to slagging pretty much everything American. In the odd moments left over, its own nation comes in for the trashing. That doubtless explains much of the pearl-clutching over the possibility that a BBC project might not take the usual dim view of business/things American/things British that is normative for the network.

  • Douglas Messier

    You don’t decide a spaceship is safe to fly on because it looks cool. That’s the problem with these things. Their seductiveness obscures their dangers.

    Cox also has to keep in mind his status as a public figure and his obligation to viewers. Last thing the industry needs is mindless boosterism based on awesomeness.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Looks like an advertorial rather than a documentary.

  • duheagle

    In an ideal world, sure. But we don’t live in one. As “betrayals” of one’s status as a “public figure” goes, Mr. Cox’s schoolboy crush and gush over SpaceShipTwo seems likely to be far less injurious to the general public than, say, Jenny McCarthy bloviating all over the airwaves about how vaccines supposedly cause autism. In the U.S., alone, there are over 200 small coffins that should, by rights, have her name carved into them. Then there are all the rappers who – from their secure suburban mansions – have gotten rich peddling the “gangsta” lifestyle in their “music” to the demographic that’s busily shooting up Chicago and other benighted places.

    Mr. Cox’s is a venial sin at worst.

  • Douglas Messier

    And you know who was even worse than all of those people?

    Hitler.

    Try to stay on topic.