by Douglas Messier
With its announcement that Richard Branson will be aboard SpaceShipTwo’s next flight test on July 11, Virgin Galactic has kicked off a 10-day extravapropaganza media blitz leading up to a flight the British billionaire has been promising for nearly 17 years. There will be press releases, videos, images, exclusive interviews, personnel profiles….the full arsenal of PR instruments that Branson’s Virgin Group wields so expertly.
And spin. Lots and lots of spin. And, from Virgin Galactic’s rival Blue Origin, shade. In fact, it’s already begun.
Here’s what Richard Branson told WaPo’s Christian Davenport today when asked about why his flight was moved up so he could fly before Jeff Bezos’ boards Blue Origin’s New Shepard for a suborbital luanch of his own on July 20.
When I asked Richard Branson about a race with Bezos to see who would fly first, he said: “I completely understand why the press would write that.” But he insisted that “it’s just an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”
Uhhh….no. The press writes that because it’s true. The source for the story I published on June 7 about the upcoming flight was crystal clear: Virgin Galactic altered its flight test schedule so Branson could fly before Bezos. One billionaire upstaging another, or as the Twittersphere so inelegantly put it, a billionaire dick measuring contest. It is not some cosmic coincidence. Not. At. All.
The original plan — which Virgin Galactic announced publicly, this is on the record for the whole planet to see, Google it if you don’t believe me, trust me it’s everywhere — was to fly four company employees in the cabin on the next suborbital test to evaluate the customer experience. Then, Richard Branson would fly on the next flight test to provide his own input into the experience. There was no public mention whatsoever — none, zero, zilch, nada, rien de tout — about Branson joining the next flight test until I wrote about it. The company didn’t confirm it, nor did officials deny it.
What changed? In early May, Bezos announced he would be flying aboard New Shepard on July 20th. Blue Origin also kicked off a three-week long auction for a seat on the flight, with the winner bidding $28 million ($29.68 million with 5 percent commission). It will be the first flight with people aboard New Shepard after 15 suborbital tests with no one aboard.
At the time, Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity hadn’t flown under power in more than two years. The vehicle’s second and most recent suborbital test in February 2019 nearly ended in disaster when the vehicle suffered damage to a horizontal stabilizer. A December 2020 suborbital flight had to be aborted due to a computer reboot.
VSS Unity‘s suborbital flight on May 22 went precisely as planned. The company got what it needed to submit reports to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to alter its launch license so it could carry passengers (i.e., spaceflight participants) like Branson on a commercial basis. It also gave them confidence in the modifications that had been made to deal with the horizontal stabilizer and computer problems.
But, getting FAA approval would take time. So would fully analyzing the data from the May 22 flight and turning around VSS Unity and its VMS Eve mother ship. There would be no way to fly two times before Bezos’ scheduled flight on July 20.
If Virgin Galactic stuck to its schedule, Bezos would fly before Branson. And Virgin Galactic, which has spent nearly 17 years advertising itself as the world’s first “spaceline” without flying a single passenger, would be relegated to second place. Not a good outcome for a program that has cost well north of $1 billion and into which Branson had put his reputation.
To prevent this, the company went full bore on getting FAA approval (which came last week) and began planning to fly Branson on the next flight over the July 4th holiday weekend. The flight got pushed out a week to July 11, which is all-in-all probably a good thing in terms of both preparation and PR. But, the original intel on this was accurate.
For Branson to try to spin this as something different from reality is fairly typical. He spent more than a decade claiming commercial flights were right around the corner even when they didn’t have an engine that could get them anywhere near space. Virgin Galactic made inflated claims about SpaceShipTwo potentially being 1,000 safer than anything that had ever previously flown people. They claimed they were taking every precaution when they were not.
The blatant nature of the spin was jaw dropping. There’s a lot of spin in NewSpace, and if they were building CubeSats and forever behind schedule, nobody would much care. But, this is human spaceflight, people are putting their lives in the hands of this company. It would be if they could trust what they are being told. The trust was just lacking.
In any event, Virgin Galactic will build up the flight to enormous, epic proportions in the 10 days ahead. It’s what they do. And they do it really well. But, others have already begun to cast shade on the flight before it even happens. The reason is there is disagreement about where space begins.
The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which keeps aviation and space records, judges the boundary of space to lie at 100 km (62.1 miles), otherwise known as the Karman line. The FAA says space begins at 50 miles, otherwise known as 80.5 km.
VSS Unity has exceeded the FAA standard, but reportedly can’t reach the 100 km altitude. New Shepard has exceeded 100 km on most of its flights. Unless Virgin’s spaceship can fly higher or FAI changes its standard, there will be the kind of shade that Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith threw at Branson’s upcoming flight.
“We wish him a great and safe flight, but they’re not flying above the Kármán line and it’s a very different experience,” he told WaPo‘s Davenport.
Neither Branson nor Bezos will be the first billionaire in space; that happened during a Soyuz flight to the International Space Station back in the Aughts. Nor will they be the first people to fly suborbital; those flights were done in the 1960’s during human spaceflight’s Paleolithic era.
They will be the first to fly in a vehicle of their own creation. And in vehicles designed to fly spaceflight participants, who will have only a few days of fairly minimal training beforehand. That’s where the focus should probably be, not on some competition between two billionaires. But, here we are.