May 9, 2021

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Will Virgin Galactic Ever Lift Off?

Will Virgin Galactic Ever Lift Off?

It’s taken 17 years, with many setbacks and some deaths, and still Richard Branson’s space mission is yet to launch. From a report: Richard Branson was running almost 15 years late. But as we rode into the Mojave desert on the morning of 12 December 2018, he was feeling upbeat and untroubled by the past. He wore jeans, a leather jacket and the easy smile of someone used to being behind schedule. Branson hadn’t exactly squandered the past 15 years. He’d become a grandfather, moved to a private island in the Caribbean and expanded Virgin’s business empire into banking, hotels, gyms, wedding dresses and more. But he was staking his legacy on Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company he formed in 2004. The idea was to build a rocketship with seats for eight — two pilots, six passengers — that would be carried aloft by a mothership, released about 45,000ft in the air and then zoom just beyond the lower limit of space, float around for a few minutes, before returning to Earth. He was charging $200,000 a seat. It did not initially seem like such a crazy idea. That year, a boutique aviation firm in Mojave, California, two hours north of Los Angeles, had built a prototype mothership and rocketship that a pair of test pilots flew to space three times, becoming the first privately built space craft. Branson hired the firm to design, build and test him a bigger version of the craft.

But the undertaking was proving far more difficult than Branson anticipated. An accidental explosion in 2007 killed three engineers. A mid-air accident in 2014 destroyed the ship and killed a test pilot, forcing Virgin Galactic to more or less start over. I approached the company shortly after the accident to ask if I could embed with them and write a story about their space programme for the New Yorker. I worked on the story for four years. After it came out, in August 2018, I spent another two years reporting and writing a book about the test pilots who fly Branson’s spaceship. Amid the tragedies and setbacks, Branson remained optimistic of the prospect of imminent success. In 2004: “It is envisaged that Virgin Galactic will open for business by the beginning of 2005 and, subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals, begin operating flights from 2007.” Then, in 2009: “I’m very confident that we should be able to meet 2011.” Later, in 2017: “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.” Meanwhile, other private space companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, were making progress. Branson confessed that had he known in 2004 what he knew now, “I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the project… We simply couldn’t afford it.”

His record on delivering promises has made him a polarising figure. Branson has appeared on lists of both hucksters and heroes. One poll ranked him second among people whom British children should emulate; Jesus Christ came third. His biographer describes him as “a card player with a weak hand who plays to strength,” but also a “self-made and self-deprecating man whose flamboyance endears him to aspiring tycoons, who snap up his books and flock to his lectures to glean the secrets of fortune-hunting.” But all of that was in the past; the turmoil and hardship would hopefully make the triumph all that much sweeter. For he and I knew as we headed into the desert that tomorrow could finally be the day that Virgin Galactic went to space.

Read more of this story at Slashdot.