MAN has a long held obsession with flight but one man more than any other has an obsession with space flight. Richard Branson has poured millions of pounds into his dream of commercial space flight. As news filtered through that one of his proto-type “Spaceships” had crashed onto the floor of the Mojave Desert, one felt that Branson’s dream had taken a severe battering. In the last few days Branson has faced a lot of personal criticism much of it unjustified, over the loss of the Virgin Prototype that killed a test pilot. It may transpire that the loss of Spaceship Two was due to pilot error and for that you simply cannot lay the blame at the feet of Sir Richard.
History has a habit of following a cyclical yet chronological path. Empires rise, prosper, decline and fall. Truth is but for the Cold War we wouldn’t have had a Space Race. Only for the emergence of Hitler we mightn’t have had a Second World War and only for the harsh Treaty of Versailles we wouldn’t have had the catastrophic social and economic conditions that gave rise to the scourge of National Socialism. Ironic then that the shifting sands of European politics and catastrophic bloodletting of two world wars would lead to arguably man’s greatest achievement; leaving behind the world that bore him and standing on another celestial body. That such an achievement was borne from the development of inter-continental ballistic missiles, technology developed by Nazi scientists, is proof that we can be at our most productive when we are actually seeking to be destructive, an extreme version of the common phrase ‘every cloud has a silver lining’
From the time of the Wright brothers first manned flight in Kitty Hawk, to man stepping on the moon took a mere sixty six years. In the intervening forty five years Space Travel hasn’t progressed much. Constellation, a Bush Administration program for a return to the Moon by 2020 was judged inadequately funded and unrealistic by an expert review panel reporting in 2009. The fact that at this very moment we cannot repeat a feat achieved in 1969 speaks volumes. It would be like if Hillary and Tenzing were still the only people to stand atop Everest.
That is not to say there hasn’t been considerable scientific achievement in that time, because there has been: in particular the deep space probes such as Voyager and Cassini, the various Mars probes etc. Yet none of these expeditions have captured the imagination of the mass public like in the golden days of Sputnik and Apollo. It is clear that the majority of people on our planet are more excited by space travel than space exploration. Yet Branson’s project is a different animal. It is the preserve of the uber rich and privileged. Many of the potential clientele will not even be household names. Many may have wealth but not fame. Even if they do end up on a Virgin galactic Craft bound for Space they will never be household names like Neil Armstrong, John Glenn or Yuri Gagarin. Maybe that’s the way they like to live, enjoying the trappings of wealth without the erosion of their privacy.
Richard Branson may yet resurrect his commercial space flight operation. He has invested too much to give up now and this accident, whilst tragic, is merely a setback.
Last year people in the US spent twice as much on plastic surgery than their Government spent on space travel. In an era where the budgets for space programs are been cut, the space shuttle grounded, the international space station running on a shoestring, there is clearly a vacuum for private promoters like Richard Branson has made a niche for his Virgin Brand. Space Tourism is an innovation and all innovations bring risk. If this accident was under the auspices of NASA there would likely be no personal blame attached to any individual, at least not in the way that Branson is currently being pilloried. The problem for Branson is that he is the quintessential capitalist and his dream of space tourism is as much about profit as it is about vision.
Just a few days before the Virgin crash another private rocket launch ended in disaster when an Antares rocket blew up just seconds after lift-off. Accidents do happen particularly when one is testing new technology. In a media interview since the ‘Space Ship Two’ crash Branson has said that he will not be accepting customers until the spacecraft has been flown safely by himself and family members. The retort sums up Branson, one part showman, one part businessman, on the front foot promoting his project. At the end of the day criticism is misplaced. Whilst Branson deliberately courts publicity, this is still essentially a private business venture, for private customers, with the objective of making money for the Virgin Group. The crash is only a temporary setback even though federal investigators are estimating that it may take up to a year before their report is complete.
Virgin will be hoping the story will not have a parallel with the tale of the Great Eastern steamship. The ship was the largest steamship of its time yet despite the genius and proven record of Brunel it was still a financial disaster, plagued by accidents, mishaps and bad luck. Branson will be keen not to emulate this Victorian calamity, nor suffer the fate of Icarus in the ancient fable when the wax securing his wings melted because he flew to close to the Sun. Despite the ire directed at Branson, humankind needs people like him to push the boundaries, to dream, to innovate, and most of all, to boldly go.