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Sat 8 Nov 2014 01:26 PM

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The bravest thing Branson could do right now is hang up his space helmet

Quitting Virgin Galactic now would not be weak, or cowardice, but brave and heroic, says Anil Bhoyrul.

The bravest thing Branson could do right now is hang up his space helmet

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.

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Ferris Valyn 5 years ago

Except, there are others also trying to do commercial spaceflight. Or do you think they aren't real, and should give up as well?

Dennis Berube 5 years ago

Space is difficult, and truly if any real space advocate thought for a min. that commercial could do it without any failures, then they believe in Santa Claus. Look at the failures that governments had in space, and continue to have, Proton, Soyuz, Apollo, Shuttles all come to mind. In the future crews will die, perhaps deep in space without any chance of recovery. Whether by governments or commercial enterprises it will happen. All this talk of sending people to Mars, and what if the first crew enroute perishes, should we stop going? I have always thought a better goal for our space programs, commercial or governmental, should be harvesting solar power for Earth. The dangers will always be there no matter who is footing the bill. Oh yes, I do believe in Santa, but never believed perfection is possible!

Tom hanley 5 years ago

The author misses one major fact when he speculates that selling Virgin Galactic to Aabar in the UAE is an option. It is not. US ITAR laws would clearly restrict transfer of the hybrid rocket technology and other Intellectual Property to a foreign country, company, or person.

I have been curious about the actual realities,based on ITAR, of plans by XCOR (Lynx), Virgin (SSII), and Sierra Nevada (Dream Chaser) to carry out plans with other companies and governments they have all announced.

RealityCheck 5 years ago

@Ferris, there has been plenty of warnings about the engines used by Virgin, and about a number of operational issues. The thing is Branson's name does not get lot of respect in the technical community and many people, right or wrongly, see him as self-aggrandizing conman

@Dennis, we would be better served by sending machines. Human beings are not well suited to space flight, and they will not be in a reasonable amount of time. Add to this the amount of weight you need to push in order to keep people going on and it is clear that the only value of manned space missions is to grab headlines (and defend the budget from the space organization)

Non-Muslim 5 years ago

Stopping this project now would stop the evolution of aviation in general and of spaceflight in particular. Mankind needs and wants evolution - anything else would mean "standstill".
As it appears, the tragic loss of SS2 was not caused by a malfunction of the engine or an ill-designed fuselage. According to a report in the UK's Daily Mail, it was, unfortunately, caused by an irreversable error of the co-pilot.
I do encourage Sir Richard to carry on.

Robert Murphy 5 years ago

The author completely misses the point of what Richard Branson is doing. He is going where no non government agency has gone before. Stopping with a disaster like with Spaceship 2 is to not run a marathon because it can hurt you, to not sail the seas because a ship never came back, to stop going to the moon because Apollo 1 had a fire disaster. Niki Lauder stopped racing because he lost his edge. He knew now what close to death feels like and that kept him from going where winners go. The program will continue and go where people who push boundaries go... bringing them along with us. Mr. Bhoyrui may not have heard the expression, "the pioneers are the ones with arrows in their hats." The human race doesn't advance by giving up. A hero pushes on, a coward gives up.

Ferris Valyn 5 years ago

- That isn't the authors point. The author's point is that this is too hard, and evidence of the difficulty is that only VG is trying to do that. Thats not true - there is XCOR Aerospace, Blue Origin, and others. So, there are multiple companies, and it is happening.

Second - you can't do large scale space development or settlement without humans in the loop, and there is no law of physics that dictates the price of spaceflight.

Elias 5 years ago

Well, if everybody goes by the author's recommendation, we will be living in the Stone Age... This is not another race for glory, this is pioneering space travel... hats off for Mr. Branson!!

SA1 5 years ago

"the pioneers are the ones with arrows in their hats"....of course ... not those who pays others to take the arrows.

procan 5 years ago

Although I agree with you in principal Elias ...Branson is a stone cold Business man and a Self promoter. Money and personal glory are what he is aboot.