Richard Branson’s Latest Memoir Gets Lost in Space

SpaceShipTwo Enterprise after being released for its final flight on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

Mogul’s Account of Virgin Galactic Most Revealing for What It Doesn’t Say

Part 1 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

One day in mid-2003, Virgin Atlantic pilot Alex Tai wandered into a hangar at Mojave Airport and discovered SpaceShipOne, a  suborbital rocket plane that Scaled Composites’ Founder Burt Rutan was secretly building to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to reach space twice in two weeks.

The chance discovery would eventually solve separate problems the famed aircraft designer and Tai’s boss, Richard Branson, were trying to solve. Rutan’s spaceship was being funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who wanted to win the prize but had no plans to finance a commercial follow-on spacecraft.

Four years earlier, Branson had registered a new company named Virgin Galactic Airways and set off in search of someone to build a vehicle capable of carrying passengers into space. Those efforts had come to naught until Tai made his discovery at the dusty airport in California’s High Desert.

Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan pose for a photo in front of the SpaceShipTwo resting under the Mothership WhiteKnightTwo inside a hangar in Mojave, Calif. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The stage was set for a collaboration seemingly made in heaven. With Rutan’s technical genius and Branson’s marketing, branding and sales skills, the two companies would open up space to the masses with SpaceShipTwo – a vehicle capable of carrying six passengers and two pilots above the Karman line at 100 km (62 miles). Hundreds then thousands of people would experience the wonders of spaceflight beginning as early as 2007.

More than 14 years after Tai’s accidental discovery, Branson is still waiting for his ride to space along with about 650 Virgin Galactic ticket holders. The SpaceShipTwo program has consumed more than $600 million while producing more deaths (4) than successful powered flights (3), all without getting anywhere near space. The effort has dragged on longer than the Apollo moon program that inspired Branson’s love of space.

That’s an awful record to explain. But, Branson gives it is the old college (dropout) try in his latest book, “Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography.” The results are less than stellar.

The basic problem is that Branson seems to be perpetually in branding and sales mode. He tells the story, which is scattered in sections throughout the book, in a way that gives the impression of candor while protecting his own reputation and that of Virgin Galactic and the larger Virgin Group.

SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage on the desert floor. (Credit: NTSB)

At times, he appears to be utterly ignorant of complex realities on the ground in Mojave. He believes things were going along just great when they were not. In other instances, he simply ignores publicly-known facts that reflect badly on the program. He also provides readers with simplistic explanations of complicated failures.

Branson places excessive blame on selected parties — some of whom had nothing to do with the program’s failures — while never accepting responsibility for anything that went wrong over 14 years. He also does a disservice to a brave pilot who is not around to defend himself.

This review will contrast what Branson claims in the book and what was actually happening in Mojave.  We will focus on the program’s two fatal accidents, which form the most dramatic segments of the author’s Virgin Galactic narrative.

An Explosion in the Desert

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Branson’s account of Virgin Galactic breezes along nicely through the SpaceShipOne prize-winning flights in 2004 and the beginnings of the SpaceShipTwo partnership. Although the billionaire promised commercial flights in three years, they were still nowhere in sight by the middle of 2007.

Virgin Galactic had chosen an architect to design the hangar facility at the $200 million spaceport the company had convinced the taxpayers of New Mexico to build for it outside of Truth or Consequences. The company was all set to announce the selection of Norman Foster on July 26, 2007, when a fatal accident in Mojave intervened.

That same day, Scaled Composites engineers were conducting a cold flow of nitrous oxide through a new engine valve when the tank suddenly exploded. The test is so named because there was no rubber fuel present. The nitrous oxide had gone off on its own without warning.

Test stand explosions are par for the course in rocketry. Fatalities are not. Companies have developed elaborate safety protocols to ensure that nobody will get hurt if something does go boom. One of the most basic procedures is to clear all personnel from the potential blast radius before starting a test.

Scaled Composites didn’t do that in this case. Of the 17 people involved in the test, 11 were positioned around the test stand when the tank blew. Three Scaled engineers – Glenn May, Todd Ivens and Eric Blackwell – were killed and three others hospitalized with serious injuries.

A memorial plaque to three Scaled Composites engineers killed in 2007 is displayed in Mojave’s Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Scaled Composites — an aircraft company which had only limited experience with rocket engines on the SpaceShipOne program — believed that nitrous oxide was perfectly safe. In fact, nitrous oxide is a mono-propellant that can explode on its own without fuel present under certain conditions.

Publicly, the explosion was described as an industrial accident that no one could possibly have seen coming. After federal accident investigators fined Scaled $25,870 for workplace safety violations, the company appealed every citation and managed to reduce the fine by about $7,000.

Branson reveals that engineers had to redesign the nitrous oxide tank, which resulted in expensive and lengthy delays for the program. He also says that Rutan took responsibility for the safety lapses in private.

A few weeks later I flew over to see [Rutan] and found myself face-to-face with a broken man. He looked like he had aged twenty years overnight. He was very quiet and all his usual exuberance had been extinguished in a flash. He could hardly walk, had trouble breathing and appeared to be wasting away. He took a lot of blame on himself for not getting the safety aspects right, and for not being there when the explosion happened. You could see the responsibility weighing on his slumped shoulders.

It turns out Burt had developed a serious medical issue and was diagnosed with constrictive pericarditis, a hardening of the sac around the heart. While Burt, as a man of engineering principles, refused to believe the stress from the accident contributed to his condition, I can’t help thinking it did. He was literally broken-hearted.

Rutan eventually underwent successful heart surgery.

The Intoxicating Effects of BYOB

Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.

Rutan had come off the SpaceShipOne program in 2004 supremely confident in his abilities and those of his team. In a speech immediately after winning the Ansari X Prize, Rutan talked about large aerospace dinosaurs quaking in their boots at what he had just accomplished. He was contemptuous of NASA, then grounded as a result of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, pronouncing the space agency’s name as nay-say.

How much of this was simply rhetoric is unclear. But, it’s likely that Rutan had fallen the trap believing your own bullshit (BYOB). Success is intoxicating, but believing your own press clippings and thinking you’ve got it all figured out are easy ways to get people killed in the rocket business.

“Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose,” Bill Gates once said.  Dazzled by what Rutan achieved with SpaceShipOne and entranced by the idea of flying into space, Branson seems to have believed the designer’s boasts.

Despite Rutan’s confidence, Scaled had just demonstrated that it couldn’t conduct a cold flow test without killing people. The company had not done its due diligence on the dangerous properties of nitrous oxide. The big aerospace companies were not quaking in their boots; they were shaking their heads at the lack of safety procedures at Scaled.

Branson says he did a lot of soul searching before deciding to continue on with the program. But, if the accident raised any concerns in his mind about the competence of Rutan and his team, he makes no mention of it in the book.

Virgin Galactic was in no position to ride herd over Rutan and Scaled at that point. The company was primarily a marketing and sales operation headed by Branson’s right-hand man, Will Whitehorn, who had no background in engineering, aerospace or manufacturing. (Virgin Galactic would build up its technical capabilities in later years.)

Branson doesn’t mention it, but the tragedy had no discernible effect on Virgin Galactic’s claims about the safety of SpaceShipTwo. If anything, the company doubled down on these claims. The hybrid engine was safe and benign despite the use of the volatile nitrous oxide that could blow up on its own, the company insisted. But, Virgin Galactic didn’t stop there.

Safety claims on Virgin Galactic’s old website.

Simple, SpaceShipTwo is not. It is essentially a hand-flown vehicle without the sophisticated computers and automated systems used in the space shuttle and modern airliners. The pilots experience a very high workload during powered ascent. SpaceShipTwo’s feather mechanism — which uses moveable twin tail booms to reconfigure the ship into a shuttlecock for reentry — is a complex system that has to work for the vehicle to return safely.

As for Rutan’s innovations possibly making SpaceShipTwo “many thousands of times safer than any manned spacecraft of the past”…this was an astounding claim that Virgin Galactic has never explained. It was marketing hype, pure and simple, with no numbers to back it up. How can there be? SpaceShipTwo has never flown to space.

A spacecraft’s level of safety can’t be defined by the marketing department. That creates a dangerous gap between the illusion of safety and reality. People start believing their own claims. Virgin Galactic was painting itself and Scaled Composites into a corner, promising a unprecedented level of reliability that would be virtually impossible to achieve.

For his part, Rutan said SpaceShipTwo would be about as safe as early commercial airliners of the 1920’s and 1930’s, when there were a large number of fatal crashes. Virgin Galactic did its best to ignore and downplay Rutan’s prescient warning.

Tomorrow: A dangerous illusion is shattered in the skies over the Mojave.

The Series

Part I: Richard Branson’s Memoir Gets Lost in Space

Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake

Part III: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

 

  • SamuelRoman13

    http://www.airproducts.com:80/nr/rdonlyres/8c46596e-2f7d-4895-b12a-e54cd63e1996/0/safetygram20.pdf

    The valve stops the flow which heats it up and if the wrong material can explode. Static electricity can set it off. ,14 Joule. I wish they would switch to LOX or a SRM. I hope they have read this from Air Products.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Let’s stop beating around the bush! Does Branson deserve to go to jail for being an accessory to a (criminal) fact? That fact being negligent homicide. If not him, then who was responsible for allowing 4 men to be killed?

  • LesSavvy

    Hey, Doug!

    Speaking of 10.31.2014, remember this pic of SS2’s last landing? Look closely and you can see the vehicle name on the fuselage fragment and other parts.

    https://i.imgur.com/PK1k8eS.jpg

    P.S. Please tell Ken Brown he owes me more money.

  • LesSavvy

    What the heck, how about one more for old times’ sake.

    https://i.imgur.com/4YDWcbV.jpg

  • Douglas Messier

    Pictures deleted. Ken Brown and i have agreed not to publish any photos of Mike Alsbury’s body out of respect for his family and friends. Please do not re-post them here.

  • Douglas Messier

    That’s a good question that goes far beyond my meager understanding of the law.

  • LesSavvy

    Message received, but I’m the third person in the agreement, those are my pics, I changed my mind, and Ken Brown can suck a bag of dicks.

  • Elliot R.

    Can anyone name a company manager in the history of aviation who went to jail for unintentionally killing a test pilot? I am honestly asking. Safe working conditions laws don’t apply to test pilots in the same way they apply to autoworkers.

    I don’t mean to throw salt in peoples wounds but this article does mention Rutan’s personality flaws that never get talked about. There is a old National Geographic Documentary (not the black sky one) that follows around X-Prize teams back in the late 90’s. In it Rutan say’s on camera that if they don’t kill anyone in pursuit of the x-prize then they aren’t moving forward as earnestly as he thinks they should.

    It’s one of those terribly arrogant statements I’m sure he would take back if he could. You can image how infectious Rutan’s techno-optimism must have been to a attention whore such as Branson.

  • imprezive

    No? Under what circumstances would that possibly be the case? Scaled Composites was doing the engineering and testing of SS2 at the time. Does the CEO of Delta have culpability if someone dies during the test program of a new Boeing airplane?