Some Interesting Excerpts From Richard Branson’s Autobiography

The location on Cantil Road where Mike Aslbury’s body — still in its seat — crashed down, narrowly missing two truck drivers. (Credit: NTSB)

So, I’ve been reading Richard Branson’s latest autobiography, Finding My Virginity. Or at least the parts dealing with Virgin Galactic. Just finished the section dealing with the loss of SpaceShipTwo No. 1 three years ago.

It’s interesting, to say the least. That is to say, not good. Jaw dropping. Bone chilling. Puking up pea soup bad.

I scarcely know where to begin. While I’m gathering up my thoughts for a detailed critique, let me throw out a few interesting passages.

CEO George Whitesides tells Branson after the crash: “If we can get through the test program, the chances of an accident happening with customers n board is extremely unlikely.”

Really? You’re going to build a fleet of spaceships, launch them into space on hundreds of flights over a decade, and you think it’s “extremely unlikely” you will lose one? Why? What is this based on? These are like…rockets. They go boom from time to time.

Branson on Virgin Galactic: “The teamwork and entrepreneurial spirit of everyone involved, from the engineers to the marketers, the rocket scientists to the doctors, is unprecedented.”

Unprecedented? In what? The space industry? The Virgin Group? The history of the world? I’m not sure things are quite as rosy out here as Branson thinks (the reviews on Glass Door are illuminating on this point), but this is typical Branson hyperbole.

Branson: “In the days after the SpaceShipTwo incident, we expected a number of future astronauts to get cold feet. On the contrary, very few people have canceled their tickets.”

Before before the accident, you guys variably had around 700 or more than 700 or around 750 customers signed up. The higher numbers, which may have been more Branson hyperbole, came during various appearances on U.S. talk shows prior to the accident. Look them up on YouTube.

Today, the number seems substantially lower. Virgin officials have lately been saying more than 600 or around 650. How do you account for this, Richard?

Talking to Paul Allen about SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X Prize: “I asked Paul what he planned to do with the spaceship if it was successful. To my horror, he said he wanted to put it in the Smithsonian once it had accomplished his dream, securing its place in aviation’s historic canon.”

Allen wanted to put it in a museum because he was afraid that if they kept flying it after winning the prize, the thing would crash or explode and there wouldn’t be anything left to donate. Judging from Burt Rutan’s complete ignorance of the dangers of nitrous oxide and the fragile, hand-built nature of the spacecraft itself, he was probably right.

Branson on rolling out WhiteKnightTwo: “By the end of January 2008, we were ready to unveil the designs of both SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. All the Galactic team and more than a hundred of our new future astronauts gathered in Mojave for the big reveal.”

No. This didn’t happen in January. It happened at the end of July 2008. It was  1 year and 2 days after the fatal explosion on the test stand that claimed three lives.

Given that nobody, but nobody, travels to Mojave at the end of July if they can possibly avoid it, and that WhiteKnightTwo was still an empty shell that wouldn’t make its maiden flight for another five months, a key purpose of the event was to give the impression of substantial progress while distracting everyone from the unanswered questions still swirling around the explosion and the fact that they had no engine for their rocketship. It seems to have worked.

Given all the grief Branson gives the press — not unfairly — over the mistakes reporters made after the loss of SpaceShipTwo, it would be nice if he got his own facts straight. This is hardly the only mistake I’ve found in the book. But, that is the subject for another post.