Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Richard Branson Wanted to Beat Elon Musk to Space. It’s Been a Wild Ride.

On the morning of Feb. 22, 2019, my two sons and I fixed our gazes on the horizon of the Mojave Desert, waiting for a flame to appear in the distant sky: Virgin Galactic’s spaceship was about to launch.

Rockets traditionally launch vertically, from the ground. Virgin Galactic does it differently; it employs an air-launch system, using a broad-winged mothership to carry its spaceship aloft, a retro configuration inspired by the experimental rocket planes of the mid-20th-century.

An hour earlier on that cold morning, Virgin Galactic’s mated mothership-spaceship duo had taken off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The pair climbed to a desired altitude of around 45,000 feet. If all went according to plan, the mothership would soon drop the spaceship, whereupon two test pilots inside the spaceship would light the rocket, pull into a near-vertical ascent so their ship’s trajectory approximated the shape of a hockey stick, and zoom into space.

I pointed at the contrails suddenly visible in the sky. Then, we saw the spaceship, called SpaceShipTwo, separate and a burst of fire shoot out from the rocket nozzle at the rear of the ship.

“Oh, my God,” said my older son.

I was his age — 7 — on the morning our second-grade teacher wheeled a TV into the classroom so we could all watch the Challenger space shuttle take off. I remembered the silence that followed after the shuttle blew up, all of us turning and asking the teacher what happened. I prayed that my kids kept their eyes straight ahead.

This was SpaceShipTwo’s ninth rocket-powered test flight, and the third one I’d witnessed. I’d spent the past four years embedded with the company, reporting on its efforts to create the world’s first “spaceline.” I conducted hundreds of interviews, sat in on dozens of planning meetings and preflight briefings, and made 15 trips to Mojave.

I was drawn to the subject by its zaniness, that a company owned by Richard Branson, an eccentric British billionaire, was flying a supersonic rocket ship in the middle of a California desert. I admired the grandiosity of the undertaking, this attempt to normalize space travel and achieve what has historically been the domain of only the most powerful governments. I saw it as a tale about excessive wealth and ambition. But because of Virgin Galactic’s unique configuration, with pilots at the controls, I always saw the story as a human one.

I interviewed Mr. Branson on a couple of occasions. The founder of the Virgin Atlantic airline, he had formed Virgin Galactic in 2004, intent on one day taking paying customers on suborbital space trips aboard the company’s one-of-a-kind rocket plane, the same one now before our eyes.

But Virgin Galactic’s grand plans had not worked out. The company was more than a decade behind schedule, while constantly dangling hope of imminent success. I was an outsider with insider access and wanted to see it triumph. I knew how the company had been shaped by tragedy and loss, including a 2007 accident that killed three workers and a 2014 accident that left a test pilot dead. Such calamities had cost Virgin Galactic in the new “space race” it had once been favored to win.

Competitors were surging ahead. 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.

Still, on that February morning in 2019, things were looking good. We watched the fiery plume arc into the sky. We craned our necks and saw the rocket motor burn out as planned, while the ship climbed into space and disappeared from our view. “They are so high,” said my youngest.

As the spaceship broke through the atmosphere, Beth Moses, one of the astronauts on board, looked outside. A former NASA engineer who’d led a team in charge of building the hardware that astronauts used on spacewalks, she’d logged hundreds of hours in the “vomit comet,” a research jet that simulates weightlessness by flying extended free falls, thereby allowing her and other engineers to conduct microgravity experiments. Now, she oversaw Virgin Galactic’s astronaut training program.

Her jaw dropped at the sight of the ocean blues, green terrains and snowcapped mountains below, framed against the deep black of space. “I thought Earth was wearing her diamonds for us,” she would later say.

We prevail over our fears by doing what we fear and living to tell the tale. To prevail by doing is to be human, but neither the prevailing nor the doing alters the risk. “As humans, we kind of go, ‘We’ve made it.’ But the risk really hasn’t changed at all. Only our perception of it,” said Todd Ericson, a retired Air Force test pilot and Virgin Galactic’s vice president for safety at the time.

Mr. Branson’s romance and boldness compelled him to create a space tourism company. But the reality of that romance may be the greatest obstacle to the Virgin Galactic’s success.

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The crash more than four years earlier exposed that reality.

On Oct. 31, 2014, Virgin Galactic was embarking on its fourth rocket-powered flight (these first four flights were conducted by Scaled Composites, a boutique aviation firm contracted by Virgin Galactic), targeting an altitude above 25 miles. As SpaceShipTwo dropped from the mothership, the spaceship’s co-pilot lit the rocket. It was all going great.

“Yeehaw!” the pilot yelled.

But then the sharp, highly trained co-pilot committed a previously unthinkable error, the equivalent of pulling the emergency brake while driving 100 miles an hour on the highway. The ship shredded apart in midair. The co-pilot died; the pilot was seriously injured.

I began reporting on Virgin Galactic soon after. My access allowed me to form deep relations and see all sides of the company. At one point, I was leaked a cache of internal documents. Some revealed the depth of Virgin Galactic’s oftentimes shaky grip on reality.

In 2013, Mike Moses, at the time Virgin Galactic’s senior vice president for operations, was sent an email containing a chart from Virgin Galactic’s chief financial officer at the time, Ken Sunshine. The chart showed a radical uptick in flight operations, projecting 75 flights in 2015, 194 in 2016, 229 in 2017 and 264 in 2018. “No chance in hell,” replied Mr. Moses, who is Beth’s husband. “These numbers are a pipe dream.” (Mr. Moses, through a representative, declined to comment on those emails.)

By the time I arrived in late November 2014, following the crash, I found a company humbled by failure. In the years that followed, Mr. Moses, who is now president, harped on the deliberate, careful nature of responsible flight test.

On that February morning in 2019, it all seemed to have paid off. Virgin Galactic had not flown the more than 700 flights that Mr. Sunshine projected. Two spaceflights in two months, though, was encouraging.

But later, when the spaceship was rolled into the hangar, Mr. Ericson saw something horrible: a gap along the trailing edge of the horizontal stabilizer, or h-stab, which controls the vehicle at supersonic speeds. A seal had come undone.

A handmade spaceship is only as good as the hands that made it. In this case, a technician had mistakenly covered the vent holes on the h-stab. As the ship climbed and the air molecules expanded, they had nowhere to escape, thus popping the seal.

This was like discovering a gash in the hull of a boat as you’re taking it out of the water. “I don’t know how we didn’t lose the vehicle and kill three people,” Mr. Ericson said.

How could this happen?

Mr. Ericson’s investigation concluded that the maintenance team was “pencil-whipping” inspections — signing off on things that were not done properly. Mr. Ericson said the team had not only failed to spot the covered vents but also missed a bag of screws someone had left inside the h-stab. Mr. Ericson regarded these errors as symptoms of organizational failure. He went to the board of Virgin Galactic with safety concerns that he thought needed immediate attention.

The board hired a retired Boeing executive to conduct a safety review and file a report. It was treated delicately. I spoke to people who knew of the inquiry but had not seen the report. (The Washington Post broke the story in February after getting an advance copy of my book, which will be released on Tuesday.) Mr. Ericson resigned as vice president for safety in June 2019, before the report was even finished. Mr. Moses, citing confidentiality policies, declined several requests to share the report. A Virgin Galactic spokesperson said the report addressed all of Mr. Ericson’s concerns and the company concluded it would be safe to resume test flights.

After the February 2019 flight, Virgin Galactic grounded SpaceShipTwo. A financial record released later that year shows the company was losing about $17 million a month, with only about $86 million left in cash and cash equivalents by the end of September.

Fortunately for the company, Chamath Palihapitiya showed up. A billionaire former Facebook executive, Mr. Palihapitiya had a SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, and was looking to invest. SPACs are blank check entities backed by big investors, created to merge with promising start-ups and take them public. In July 2019, Mr. Palihapitiya and Mr. Branson announced that they were doing just that. As a show of confidence, Mr. Palihapitiya pledged $100 million of his own money.

A few months after his announcement with Mr. Palihapitiya, Mr. Branson was banging the bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to commemorate the first day of trading. “He’s magic,” Jim Cramer, the CNBC host, said of Mr. Branson. “People want a little bit of magic.”

Virgin Galactic’s stock has performed well, once trading nearly five times what it was at the close of the first day of trading; today, it’s about double. Most critically, however, the stock has given the company a lifeline. According to a recent financial statement, at the end of last year, the company was losing about $25 million a month but had more than $660 million in cash and cash equivalents.

Now Virgin Galactic seems once again dizzy with dreamy projections. It recently announced a “multiyear effort” to conduct as many as 400 flights a year per spaceport.

It has not completed a successful rocket-powered test flight since February 2019. Last December, Virgin Galactic attempted its first rocket-powered test in nearly 22 months but aborted in midair. The problem was an issue with the onboard computer. Its next attempt, scheduled for February, was postponed the week before the flight because the cause of the previously aborted mission had not yet been adequately resolved. The sort of magic that lures investors is not enough to propel a spaceship.

Mr. Palihapitiya recently sold off over $200 million worth of his personal shares. While the Virgin Group remains Virgin Galactic’s largest shareholder, last month Mr. Branson dumped more than $150 million worth of stock as part of a trading plan adopted in March.

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Yet Virgin Galactic forges ahead. It plans to resume its rocket-powered flight test program in May, and its new chief executive, Michael Colglazier, the former head of Disney’s international theme park division, appears intent on dealing with past difficulties. It recently unveiled a spaceship that includes metallic fasteners that help prevent disbonding, and a stability augmentation system that automates an aspect of the flight and allows for a smoother ride.

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.

Perhaps that’s what made this company so fascinating to watch: its hope, in spite of the odds. I wanted to see it succeed not because I cared who won the private space race but because I admired the passion and optimism shared by the techs and engineers and test pilots on the project. We can only hope when we fear failure, and that was one thing algorithms couldn’t yet do: hope. The human factor had worked its magic on me.

My kids felt it, too. They still talk about watching that ship blast off and then later standing at the foot of the stage while Beth Moses, elated at what she’d just witnessed, struggled to find the words to articulate her experience, while her husband and her own children gazed up at her in awe.

That, she said, “is an indescribable ride.”

Nicholas Schmidle writes for The New Yorker and is the author of “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut,” from which this essay is adapted.

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