Little is known yet about what went wrong aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The commercial spacecraft’s test flight crashed in California’s Mojave Desert on Friday, killing one pilot and leaving another seriously injured. “Space is hard,” responded Virgin Galactic CEO George Whiteside in a news conference, “and today was a tough day.”
Writing at Time magazine’s website, Jeffrey Kluger — author of Lost Moon, upon which was based the Oscar award–winning film Apollo 13 — suggests that Virgin Galactic, with founder Richard Branson at the helm, is in for many more tough days:
It’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable.
He points out that Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen both have on-the-side space operations. “It’s Branson, however, who has always been the most troubling of the cosmic cowboys — selling not just himself on his fever dreams but his trusting customers.”
At the Daily Beast, Clive Irving piles on:
From the beginning in 2004 there has always been a credibility gap between the fairground hyperbole of Branson’s formidable publicity machine and the scientific reality of the enterprise. Somehow, probably because he is such a consummate showman, Branson has been able, year after year, to override the story of continual delays, flagrant over-promises and a voracious, seemingly open-ended budget.
Branson is nothing if not charismatic, and people are eager to buy what he is selling: Virgin Galactic says more than 700 people each have put down a deposit on a $200,000 to $250,000 fare for a future suborbital joyride, date TBD; among the eager astronauts are Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Stephen Hawking. But in Branson’s defense, he has been more successful than the average fairground barker: Thanks to the success of his Virgin Group — a conglomerate of business ventures that range from commercial spaceflight to the Virgin record label (which produces among others Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney, and Willie Nelson) — Branson boasts a net worth of $5 billion. Not one to recline at home counting his cash, he has spent his free time attempting to set records — for the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing, for circumnavigating the globe in a hot air balloon, and for crossing the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle, among others.
Among the wealthiest of the wealthy, Branson is certainly less Bill Gates, more Howard Hughes. “Cosmic cowboy” is not inapt. And it is not necessarily derogatory, either; space is, after all, the last frontier. And frontiers, as Kluger seems to forget, are dangerous.
The first years of modern aviation certainly were. In August 1896, German aviator Otto Lilienthal died from injuries suffered when he lost control of his glider and plunged 50 feet to earth. Three years later, British aeronaut Percy Pilcher died when the tail of his glider snapped in midair. The Wright brothers may have made their famous flight at Kitty Hawk in December 1903, but two years later, Orville narrowly escaped being killed when the brothers’ newest plane failed. Wilbur crashed in May 1908. That same year, U.S. Army lieutenant Thomas Selfridge joined Orville as a passenger for a flight at Fort Myer, Va. When the plane went down, the young soldier became history’s first airplane-crash fatality.
In his 1979 book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe chronicles the dangers that surrounded early spaceflight — which began with the jet engine. Navy statistics, he writes, eventually revealed that a Navy pilot who hoped to fly for 20 years had a 1 in 4 chance of dying accidentally — that is setting aside the risk of being shot down in combat.
Furthermore [Wolfe continues], there was a better than even chance, a 56 percent probability, to be exact, that at some point a career Navy pilot would have to eject from his aircraft to come down by parachute. In the era of jet fighters, ejection meant being exploded out of the cockpit by a nitroglycerine charge, like a human cannonball. The ejection itself was so hazardous — men lost knees, arms, and their lives on the rim of the cockpit or had the skin torn off their faces when they hit the “wall” of air outside — that many pilots chose to wrestle their aircraft to the ground rather than try it . . . and died that way.
In mid-century aviation, even the life-saving measures killed you.
Spaceflight has been much the same, from the Soviet Soyuz 1 to the Space Shuttle Columbia: a process of trial and often-fatal error. But as long as we believe that this is a frontier worth conquering, that risk is inevitable. Perhaps no one expressed it better than Ronald Reagan in the simple lines addressed to America’s schoolchildren in his 1986 Challenger address:
It’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.
Aviation pioneers — much like the pioneers of undersea exploration, or the pioneers who set out into the American West — have risked their lives to advance the perimeters of man’s sphere of knowledge and power. That is as true today, when the frontier is flying people to Mars, as it was a century ago, when it was flying people to London. The pilots who took SpaceShipTwo to the edge of the atmosphere were not ignorant of the risks; that they took them on knowingly is the very reason we honor them. They put themselves on the line to help us push a bit farther out into the frontier.
Branson may not be in the cockpit, but he is, in his way, doing the same. Whether he will succeed is yet unknown, and, of course, the difference between hubris and genius is success. But the SpaceShipTwo tragedy may make that success possible. Much to our grief, that is often how progress works.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.