Nicholas Schmidle, Richard Branson Wanted to Beat Elon Musk to Space. It’s Been a Wild Ride. NYTimes, May 1, 2021.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX had dozens of rocket launches under its belt, and it was preparing to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Mr. Branson’s primary rival in the suborbital tourism market, had completed 10 successful, albeit uncrewed, suborbital flights. (SpaceX and Blue Origin both used a traditional, vertical-launch system.)
Each company had its own ambitions and business models. Virgin Galactic’s most striking distinction came down to its belief in the human mind. SpaceX and Blue Origin were run by algorithmic geniuses who saw the potential for computing power to eliminate human error, to one day render fallibility obsolete.
Virgin Galactic was more analog, befitting Mr. Branson’s persona as an adventurer of yesteryear. Virgin Galactic’s destination was space, but it remained an airplane company at heart. Its fortunes were put in the hands of crackerjack test pilots. Its relatively simple spaceship was all cables and rods. The ship took real skill to fly. Every flight was a matter of life and death; there were no laps around the racetrack in second gear before stomping on the gas to start the race.
But the company’s brand was perhaps also its biggest burden. Technological progress presumes a failure rate that Virgin Galactic, by its own measure, cannot sustain. “A private program can’t afford to lose anybody,” Mr. Branson has said. But consider the fatality rate for commercial airlines: In 1974, the risk of dying in a commercial aviation accident was about one in 200,000; in 2017, it was one in a hundred million. A program so reliant on talented but inherently flawed humans was inevitably fraught.
Hampered by its cultural heritage:
While these changes could address some of Virgin Galactic’s problems, its DNA as a rocket plane company remains the same — a DNA that may present its greatest challenge, according to Luke Colby, a propulsion engineer who worked on Virgin Galactic’s spaceship program for nearly a decade and has also consulted for SpaceX and Blue Origin. “If you want a space vehicle to be fully reusable for airline-like traffic, it doesn’t have to look like an airplane,” Mr. Colby said. “It just has to function like one. And the physics really drive you toward a two-stage, vertical-take-off-and-vertical-landing rocket.”
He accepted that Virgin Galactic is likely to be remembered as one of the first “but not necessarily the most successful” of the first “new” space companies — a sobering admission. Its problem, he said, was that the company was driven by nostalgia for aeronautical flight. Blue Origin and SpaceX, on the other hand? They “have been driven by the physics of spaceflight,” he said.
Physics presented one challenge; human nature posed another. Put simply, Virgin Galactic has set a standard of perfection for itself that is noble but naïve. As one test pilot said, “Ninety-nine percent isn’t good enough.” An accident rate of less than 1 percent on an experimental rocket ship? Near impossible. Those are the hard realities of romance.