Branson Back to Making Predictions About SpaceShipTwo’s Schedule

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Now that the second SpaceShipTwo Unity has five glide flights under its belt, the “we’ll fly when we’re ready, we don’t make predictions” era appears to be officially over at Virgin Galactic.

“I certainly would be very disappointed if I don’t go up next year. And I would hope it’s earlier than later in the year,” Richard Branson told British GQ. “The programme says that we should be [testing] in space by December, as long as we don’t have any setbacks between now and then.”

The prohibition on Sir Richard making schedule predictions was imposed after the ‘we’ll have a new ship ready to fly in six months’ estimate following the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo on Halloween 2014 turned out to be only so much hot air. (It took about two years.)

Before the accident, Branson’s hopelessly optimistic and perpetually inaccurate predictions for the start of commercial flights were the subject of much public skepticism.

With SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first powered flight probably still several months away, Branson is busy ramping up the Virgin publicity machine in anticipation of clear sailing ahead through the most challenging and risk-filled part of the flight test program.

The prediction is part of an online tease for feature story in British GQ‘s current print edition that is accompanied by an “an exclusive interview with Sir Richard Branson.” (Exclusive? Really? The guy was on the Colbert show just the other day saying basically the same thing. But, whatever….ya gotta sell magazines somehow.)

“Charlie Burton goes behind the scenes as the company gears up to fulfil the dreams of a generation of would-be astronauts,” the promo page says.

Another behind-the-scenes exclusive. How many of those have there been over the past decade? Too many.

(BTW Charlie, if you’re reading this….the first SpaceShipOne didn’t explode as the teaser says. This was knocked down two days after the crash. Get your facts straight, mate.)

So, Virgin Galactic has done five glide flights of SpaceShipTwo Unity. They’ve talked about doing eight to 10 glide flights in total before going on to conduct an undisclosed number of powered flights.

The schedule Branson mentions is certainly possible. It depends upon how aggressively Virgin Galactic wants to pursue the flight test program, and how many or few flights the company wants to conduct.

To paraphrase Chuck Yeager, flight test is an exacting and tedious process whose purpose is to discover every flaw in a flying vehicle that can kill you without getting killed in the process.

SpaceShipTwo has failed to meet that standard already, with one dead in flight test and three in a ground explosion. It will be interesting to see if the latter accident even gets mentioned in the story.

If you skimp on the flight testing and miss something, the problem is bound to crop up during operational missions. That happened to the F-100 fighter, which was rushed into production despite clear evidence it was directionally unstable. A number of pilots died in accidents — including the chief pilot for the manufacturer — before the planes were recalled for modifications.

In Virgin Galactic’s case, operational missions mean having millionaires and billionaires — some quite famous — on the company’s only spacecraft.

Richard Branson will be on the first commercial flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Branson tells British GQ that his children, Sam and Holly, will probably not be joining him on that flight.

“Both my children have now got young children, two lots of two-year-olds, so I think I would most likely choose to do it myself initially,” the billionaire said.

Branson leaves open the possibility of continuing the SpaceShipTwo program even if there is another catastrophic accident.

“What would we do if that happened? How would we all feel? We’d have to look at what had gone wrong and then decide at the time. But I’m not one for giving up. In my ballooning adventures we had many catastrophes but we kept pushing on. So my instinct would be that, whatever happens, we’ll carry on until we succeed.”

Well, the first SpaceShipTwo was on its fourth powered test flight when it broke up on Oct. 31, 2014. At the rate Virgin Galactic is moving, it will be lucky to be back to that point when the third anniversary of the accident rolls around four months from now.

A lot would depend upon when an accident happens, how far along they are on any additional vehicles, and what corrective actions might need to be taken.

Virgin Galactic has been in pre-revenue for nearly 13 years. If the company faced another one or two years with SpaceShipTwo grounded, could it afford to continue operating? How much money would that cost?

The other question is who might die in an accident. Test pilots know the risks. Blowing up a half dozen celebrities on a flight would be extremely bad for a publicity conscious organization like the Virgin Group.