Branson's spaceship crash just one of many Virgin Galactic setbacks
Sir Richard Branson says he remains committed to his commercial suborbital space flight service. But the odds against it have risen with the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceshipTwo, otherwise known as VSS Enterprise.
Latest reports on investigations in the Mojave Desert say the crash – which killed one of the two pilots – was due to premature deployment of movable tail surfaces.
Backers of the Galactic spaceflight venture, which is costing some $US500 million, say it will go ahead but critics of Branson are not so sure.
British author Tom Bower, who has written several books critical of Branson, says the venture is like many others he has been involved in – little more than a rort and unlikely to succeed.
In Behind the Mask (Faber & Faber, 2014), Bower says this is because of outdated technology and endless delays since the space venture was first raised in 2007.
Bower goes straight for the jugular. Not only does Branson have a lamentable businesses record, he is also not as wealthy as he makes out.
His only profitable businesses, Bower claims, are those with no competition under government regulation, notably railways and airlines.
This lack of finance means Branson’s new business ventures get their money from partners while he contributes only his reputation and flare for publicity. In the case of Galactic, the money is from Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments, controlled by the ruling Nahyan family.
This is why he is more of a stuntman than a businessman, Bower writes. Instead, Branson’s money comes from government subsidies, tax breaks, licensing agreements and protected income streams.
His railway and airline operations are in this category, though the loss-making Virgin Australia is now financially supported by three other international carriers, including Air New Zealand.
A history of Branson’s business failures includes cola drinks, wine and cosmetics, in which others took the losses.
Bower’s allegations are backed up in a London Observer report, which says his fortune-making Virgin Atlantic has tipped into the red after losing its duopoly with British Airways on London Heathrow flights to the US.
The airline has lost £250 million over the past four years, with half-owner Singapore Airlines selling its 49% stake to Delta of the US for £224 million in 2013. It was a considerable loss on a shareholding that
Singapore bought its half-share from Branson for £600 million in 1999. His recent attempt at creating a domestic feeder airline, Little Red, met with failure and will be closed next year.
The bulk of Branson’s fortune has come from the unglamorous business of operating a rail franchise, leased from the government.
By 2017 he is expected to have taken away £300 million in dividends from Virgin Rail, which operates the London-to-Glasgow Intercity West Coast route on an exclusive contract, the Observer says.
Again, Branson shares the risks with a partner, Sir Brian Souter’s Stagecoach.
The UK’s Department for Transport officials expelled them from the franchise in 2012, beliving it to be too generous.
But a court overturned that decision, allowing Branson to run the route until 2017 with the possibility of a further one-year extension.
Crash investigators seek cause
The US National Transportation Safety Board says two seconds after the movable tail surfaces were moved – with SpaceShipTwo travelling faster than the speed of sound – “we saw disintegration,” acting chairman Christopher Hart told a news conference.
The sequence of events released by the NTSB indicates the rocket ship separated normally from its carrier and the propulsion system worked normally until the tail surfaces, called feathers, were deployed.
The fuel tanks and engine were recovered largely intact. The hybrid motor fuelled by nitrous oxide and a plastic-based compound was found some 8km from where large sections of the tail first hit the ground.
Sections of the fuselage, fuel tanks and cockpit were located some distance from the engine itself. This suggests there was no propulsion-system explosion before the craft started coming apart.
Virgin Galactic has struggled through years of propulsion problems before switching to the redesigned engine and reformulated fuel in May.
The previous engine, which burned a rubber-based fuel, produced unexpected vibrations and inadequate power to blast SpaceShip Two and its anticipated eight occupants 100km above the Earth.
The new engine-fuel combination was tested on the ground about a dozen times in the months leading up to last Friday’s flight.
The Virgin Galactic team also had struggled with flight-control problems. In 2011, chief pilot David Mackay told the Wall Street Journal that during one unpowered test glide to earth, the twin tails of SpaceShipTwo stalled and the craft descended more quickly than normal.
On Sunday, chief executive Geroge Whitesides said the 2011 incident was the only major flight-control problem Virgin Galactic encountered. He said engineers had fixed “the tail stall via a modification” to a control surface.
He indicated the rocket motor on the craft that crashed was a derivative of a design that had been successfully tested on the ground and in the air for years.
“At the end of the day, safety of our system is paramount,” he said in an interview. “The engineers and the flight-test team have the final authority” to determine when and how experimental flights are conducted.
Earlier, the Wall Street Journal reported the crash was a major setback to all space exploration activity.
“Virgin Galactic's fatal mishap may have a long-term residual impact as dramatic as the fallout from the 2003 in-flight breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven crew members.”
The VSS Enterprise, and the aircraft that carries it into spacc, WhiteKnight, were made by Two.Scaled Composites, now owned by Northrop Grumman.
It should also be noted Virgin Galactic’s suborbital tourism is not to be confused with serious commercial space flight ventures, such as the recent Nasa contract with Boeing and SpaceX for a new generation space shuttle.
While Nasa has also given contracts to other space-flight ventures, Virgin has never been a recipient.