Virgin Galactic Is a Victim of Its Own Hype
Promising too much can undermine trust
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not like this. Not with the death of SpaceShipTwo’s co-pilot. And not a few months before the space plane would have begun its first commercial flights.
The rocket-propelled, suborbital SpaceShipTwo broke up and crashed during a test flight on Oct. 31. It’s unclear why the accident occurred, but it was the first time Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites—the plane’s manufacturer—had tested a new plastic-based fuel mixture while airborne.
Michael Alsbury, the plane’s 39-year-old co-pilot, died in the crash.
But there’s another problem with Virgin Galactic. When it comes to space travel, the company over-promises—and downplays the risk. The result is a bunch of bad incentives that can make accidents more likely.
The Halloween Day catastrophe raised questions about the future of the private space industry, and the fate of Virgin Galactic.
Chris Taylor at Mashable highlighted the inherent dangers of space travel, but cast aside doubts on the company future’s in an ode to technological progress.
“Everyone who boards a Virgin Galactic flight, whenever such a thing happens, will be a space pioneer—and they’ll assume all the risks that all pioneers in previous centuries did,” Taylor wrote.
But others noted the dissonance between the company’s star-trekking public image and the reality of sub-orbital leisure flights. The company is indeed a pioneer in the field of engineering, Wired’s Adam Rogers wrote, but it’s hardly a space pioneer in any meaningful sense.
It’s unrealistic to expect the company’s customers to accept the same risks that professional pilots and astronauts face in the pursuit of far-reaching science and space exploration.
It’s cliche to say that space and rocketry are dangerous industries, but do people really grasp just how dangerous? In terms of the fatality rate, being an astronaut is perhaps the most dangerous profession there is.
Of all people who have flown into space, four percent have died in the pursuit of their work.
Many of Virgin Galactic’s customers are well aware they’re taking serious risks by signing up to fly—and they do it anyway for the adventure and thrill. But it’s worth asking whether Virgin Galactic’s business model could survive if its passengers’ fatality rate equaled that of the actual, existing space program.
Most certainly not. If a company saw four percent of its own customers die over the course of several decades, then it’d be a shock to know how the company ever survived that long.
Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson knows this, too. “If you’re a government-run space program and you have a disaster, you can afford to most likely get through that disaster and keep going,” Branson told Inc. magazine in 2012.
“If you’re a private company and you have a disaster in a space program, it could do major damage to the program,” he added.
And to be fair, Burt Rutan, the owner of Scaled Composites, said the space plane would be about as safe as an early commercial airliner. “Don’t believe anyone that tells you that the safety will be the same as a modern airliner, which has been around for 70 years,” Rutan said in 2008.
But this still downplays how dangerous it is. Early commercial flights were much safer than space travel—and even modern-day commercial logging.
More troubling, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites have a less-than-transparent history of disclosing problems. NASA, for its part, has also had problems with too little dissent and too little transparency, contributing to fatal accidents.
In July 2007, a rocket motor developed for SpaceShipTwo exploded on the ground at the Mojave Air and Space Port, killing three engineers.
“What is striking is the lack of witness cooperation,” noted an analysis from rocket engineering firm Knights Arrow after the release of a federal investigation report.
“No one wanted to talk. In particular the impression was gained of ‘guarded’ responses.”
Others critics see the loss of SpaceShipTwo—and one of its pilots—as something that might have been avoided with more openness to discuss Virgin Galactic’s engineering practices and problems.
“It is early and premature to make any hypothesis about what when wrong with SpaceShipTwo,” wrote Andrea Gini, a NASA contractor an editor-in-chief of Space Safety Magazine.
“But this accident is a wake-up call to the industry about how dangerous it is to run a business involving the safety of so many people—crews, paying customers, spaceport personnel, and even the public at large—in a regime of silence and lack of transparency,” he added.
The incentive to stay hushed—the just-trust-us philosophy of space engineering—also leads to a perverse incentives arising from how the company deals with its customers.
In September, The Sunday Times quoted Virgin Galactic customers—or “Virginauts”—who considered pulling their money out of the project due to delays and doubts SpaceShipTwo would actually be able to reach outer space—or about 62 miles above the Earth. New Mexico taxpayers were also getting fed up with pouring millions of dollars into a spaceport that had yet to see any flights.
“Unfortunately, this situation could end up merely increasing pressure on engineers and pilots in Mojave to complete the flight test program as quickly as possible,” warned the Mojave-based journalist Douglas Messier at the blog Parabolic Arc on Sept. 23.
“That would be very bad move,” he wrote. “Haste is the biggest enemy of flight test. And Virgin’s flight test program already seems overly rushed.”
Those words are now grimly foreshadowing. And the result is a business trapped by its own hype. The company promises a round-trip ticket into space, underwritten with trust. But what happens when trust goes away?