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.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Good analysis. Spaceshipone was mostly a kludge put together to win the Ansari X-Prize by the deadline for it. They were very lucky it didn’t kill anyone even though it had a number of close calls in its short flight history. It had drifted a long way from its original purpose. If you get a chance read what Paul Allen wrote about it in his biography.

  • Douglas Messier

    I have read that. It is interesting.

  • Search

    Glad someone finally called this. No surprise is it? Read the NTSB report and you’ll find plenty of evidence of this glib attitude towards sane engineering and propulsion safety approaches starting from their very first attempts. Remember the very first flight – 16P that very nearly killed the pilot? or the Scaled accident? Seems endemic.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Space Ship One was a first prototype and those are never spot on. It was good enough to win the prize, but it would have likely had more iterations early on if it was intended to be a commercial product. It’s like the Masten Space Systems rocket Xoie. She was designed and built to win the NGLLC prize and nothing more. She also had numerous issues that time and budget wouldn’t allow to be sorted out, so it flew in a less than perfect condition and was a real Cinderella story with it’s win after catching on fire the day before. There was no request from the Smithsonian to donate it, so it was taken to pieces and lived on as components in other vehicles and test stands (except for the leaking composite fuel tank).

    It looks to me like Space Ship Two has been held up by having the fuselage done and design locked before there was a proven powerplant to go in it. The accident report also shows that they could use a few more cynical bastards like me on the safety evaluation team trying to poke holes in the design, build and flight ops. I understand why they were unlocking the feather during powered flight, but I can also think of several different ways to go that don’t require that. Maybe they’ve thought of them too, but leaving the big single failure point where they did and didn’t catch it is indicative of a management push overriding the better judgment of the engineering staff or a giant error. I’ll have to ask if Scaled uses outside design review on their projects the way that NASA will have seasoned veterans take fresh looks at projects in development to make sure there isn’t a bunch of hand waving going on and that they will be able to stay on budget. I highly recommend Steve Squyres book “Roving Mars” for an excellent look at a NASA project and how they review their projects.

    I was one of the first few people at the site where Mike came to rest and to say it was disturbing doesn’t get close to the mark. Doug and I heard first hand from two people driving delivery trucks in opposite directions when the crash of those parts landed a couple of hundred feet in between them after they had passed each other. SRB didn’t see the crater where Mike hit and what happened. He probably was able to get a nap on his private jet going back to his island but I shook for days after the accident and can’t remember when I was able to get any sleep.

  • Douglas Messier

    I was up at 6 a.m. that morning and didn’t fall asleep until about 10 p.m. the following night. I lay awake all night staring at the ceiling, too shaken to let sleep overtake me.

  • Spacetech

    “Space Ship One was a first prototype and those are never spot on” “There was no request from the Smithsonian to donate it”
    Are you referring to the VSS Enterprise Spaceship Two?
    Spaceship One does indeed hang in the Smithsonian.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    I was writing about Masten’s Xoie rocket.

  • Spacetech

    I stand corrected Sir.

  • publiusr

    here’s a question. Did any of the Saudi’s who promised Branson oil money actually deliver before being….oh, I don’t know…arrested?

  • patb2009

    Sorry about that. An air crash is hard on the fire and rescue workers.