Mogul’s Account of Virgin Galactic Most Revealing for What It Doesn’t Say
Part 1 of 3
Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Oct. 10, 2017
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake