As anyone who follows Formula One will tell you, there is a great story from 1976 that really defines the career of the legendary driver Niki Lauda. Just six weeks after suffering horrific burns during a race at the German Grand Prix, Lauda returned to the track for the final race of the season in Japan. He needed to beat his arch rival James Hunt to secure the world championship, and seal his place in history as the greatest comeback king that ever lived.
Yet just two laps into that race, after heavy rain, Lauda stopped his car and walked away, saying it was too dangerous to carry on racing. Hunt became world champion. Lauda lost. But despite being a coward in the eyes of his bosses at Ferrari, history would judge him a hero. He was smart enough and brave enough to know when to quit.
Sir Richard Branson would do well to watch a video of that race, as he ponders over the future of his Virgin Galactic dream. Putting ordinary people into space (for $200,000 each) was never going to be easy. But it was never meant to be this hard. Founded in 2004, Branson predicted in July 2008 that he would be flying passengers into space within 18 months. By December 2009, the launch date was moved to 2011. Then 2013. In September this year that became March 2015.
The tragic demise of SpaceShipTwo above the Mojave Desert in California on 31 October has put that plan on indefinite hold. It could take a full year before the investigation into the crash is complete, and the outcome and consequences are anyone’s guess. The costs have ballooned to close to $1bn. Abu Dhabi-based Aabar has pumped around $400m into the venture for a 37 percent stake, though how much more of that money is left to spend, without Branson tapping into Virgin Group resources, is not clear. Ticket sales from 800 space punters only add up to around $160m.
Without knowing the reasons for the crash, it would be wrong to speculate on whether the existing technology being used by Virgin Galactic is workable and safe. But for the 64-year old serial entrepreneur and adventurer, there is a case to be made for Branson hanging up his space helmet (unused) for good.
Over many decades, what Branson has been brilliant at is reinventing the wheel, with a hefty splice of Virgin-style customer service and branding. Airlines existed long before Virgin Atlantic, yet he created one of the world’s greatest ever airlines. Mobile phones were around long before the hugely successful Virgin Mobile. Ditto Virgin Rail, Virgin Money, Virgin Media and Virgin Active.
Commercial space travel is different as Branson created a company and the technology both from absolute scratch. It is fair to say that so far, this just hasn’t worked. Given the countless delays and now indefinite delay, it may never work. Sure, everyone must and does admire Branson’s passion for the project, but a billion dollars later, and after the death of one test pilot (adding to three other deaths in a 2007 accident), now maybe the time for Branson to accept this project will not materialise in his lifetime.
That said, the likes of Aabar invested into the project as part of a wider strategic plan to see a space port built in the UAE. Backed by the state-owned IPIC, they have the funds and the time to keep the commercial space dream alive. Offering them the entire company, which could be worth around $1.2bn, would be the ideal exit strategy. And a lucrative one.
One of the first times I met Branson was on the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Shanghai in 1998. As he surveyed the 350 passengers lapping up the fabulous entertainment and service, he told me: “All we do is what everyone else does, but we just do it a lot better.”
The problem for Virgin Galactic is nobody else is doing what it does. Quitting now is not weak, or cowardice, but like Niki Lauda, actually brave and heroic.For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.