Virgin Galactic Sending Mixed Messages to Its Own Engineers

“We do [have a date for beginning commercial operations], but what we don’t do is announce it publicly. And the reason for that is just that I don’t want to put schedule pressure on our engineers. You know, schedule pressure was essentially what caused Challenger….We’re getting close. We hope to get to space next year, and start commercial operations as soon as we can after that. I don’t give out a date. We don’t give out a date outside the company, but we’re getting close.”

— Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides
on The Space Show with David Livingston
Nov. 4, 2011

“Commercial spaceship travel is, I think, about a year away….Hopefully, by next Christmas, myself my daughter and my son will be the first people to go up into space.”

— Sir Richard Branson
in The Hague (see video above)
Nov. 14, 2011

If everything goes smoothly, “we would hope to be flying people to space by 2013.”

— Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough
at an international media and marketing conference in Singapore
Nov. 14, 2011

Oops. Looks like some people didn’t get the memo.

Those poor engineers. Their respite from the pressures of publicly announced commercial start dates didn’t even last two weeks. 🙁

It’s surprising as to why a company that is so PR savvy and has such a tight control over its messages has been giving out so many mixed signals on this program. Whitesides and his predecessor, Will Whitehorn, have consistently talked about milestones, not dates. But, Branson has gone out and and made a series of predictions that have turned out to be wildly optimistic.

Branson’s latest estimate appears to be yet another one. SpaceShipTwo won’t even be flying with its engine until second quarter of 2012. It seems unlikely that they will be able to reach space, fully explore the powered flight envelope, and obtain the required FAA license by next Christmas. There’s a lot of testing ahead, and the government simply doesn’t move that fast. But, then again, stranger things have happened.

The other question is whether they will fly paying passengers aboard the VSS Enterprise vehicle they are currently testing, or whether they need to construction a second SpaceShipTwo that incorporates all the changes resulting from the flight tests. If a new vehicle is required, they may not be able to really start on it until they are well into powered flights next year.