After the crash: Inside Richard Branson’s $600m space mission
Three years after its spaceship exploded in a tragic accident, Virgin Galactic has regrouped. Sir Richard Branson hopes to start flying passengers in 2018. GQ went behind the scenes as the company attempts to fulfil the dreams of a generation of would-be astronauts
Something wasn’t quite right. It was a little after 10am on 31 October 2014 and, in the skies high above the Mojave Desert, David Mackay had just launched Virgin Galactic’s spaceship VSS Enterprise from the underside of his aircraft. Now he was scanning the airspace for the distinctive plume of Enterprise’s rocket motor, which would mark the start of the spaceship’s fourth powered test flight. “I remember looking down and thinking, ‘Well that’s strange, the motor must be burning really clean,’ because I couldn’t see it at all,” recalls Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot. “Then we immediately started to hear things [on the radio] that indicated something bad had happened.”
Out of Mackay’s line of sight, the spaceship had, in fact, ignited its rocket and accelerated into the sound barrier as planned. Four seconds later, however, it had exploded at 46,000 feet. Enterprise’s pilot Peter Siebold had been thrown from the spaceship; despite being injured and starved of oxygen he would remarkably manage to parachute to the ground. His copilot, Michael Alsbury, would later be found dead in the wreckage, his body still strapped into his seat.
Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, was at his home in the British Virgin Islands when he learned of the accident. He took a jet straight to California. “The few hours that it took me to fly to the Mojave Desert – obviously I had a lot of time to think,” recalls the 66-year-old. “At that stage we didn’t know whether the spaceship had let us down or whether it was pilot error. If there was some kind of fundamental flaw with the spaceship then, I suppose, there would have been a possibility that we may have called it a day.” Media speculation was rife about what had gone wrong – a popular theory was that the rocket engine, which was trialling new fuel, had exploded. Although the official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) would take almost a year, instrument data and cockpit camera feeds allowed the team at the Mojave Air & Space Port, where Virgin Galactic develops its technology, to quickly reach a conclusion: pilot error.
The spaceship’s design includes a hinged twin-boom tail that’s moved upwards before re-entry from space. In that position, it causes drag crucial for controlling orientation and descent speed while heading back to earth. For a reason that remains unknown, Alsbury had unlocked it too early, before Enterprise was supersonic. Subjected to aerodynamic overload, the ship’s carbon-composite body simply ripped apart.
The media trained its guns on Branson. Wired magazine, the chroniclers in chief of pioneering ideas, ran a piece headlined “Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For”. Its opening salvo: “A brave test pilot is dead and another one critically injured – in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.” But the entrepreneur was cool-headed. He consulted staff at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, the partner company developing the spaceship, who said they wished to carry on. So, too, did more than 97 per cent of Virgin Galactic’s customers. In an article published on Virgin’s website the day after the crash, he vowed to continue. “Space is hard,” wrote Branson, “but worth it.”
“We started to hear things on the radio that indicated something bad had happened.” David Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot
Three years on, Virgin Galactic is testing a new spaceship, VSS Unity. It looks similar to its predecessor: it’s another reusable suborbital spaceplane of a type called SpaceShipTwo, designed to be launched at high altitude from the same mother ship that Mackay was flying the day of the accident. The control system, however, has some crucial differences. The NTSB concluded that although Enterprise was indeed brought down by pilot error, the blame lay with Scaled Composites for its “failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard”. Unity has extra safety measures, including a failsafe that prevents the tail from being unlocked prematurely. Since its unveiling in 2016, the spaceship has been steadily advancing through its test flight programme. First, “captive carry” flights, attached to the launch aircraft throughout, and then “glide” flights, in which it’s released to sail unpowered back to earth. Next up will be the stage that Enterprise reached: rocket-powered test flights.
The boundary between the earth and space, as defined by Nasa, is at a distance of 80km above sea level. Virgin Galactic needs to take its passengers beyond it – at least fractionally – in order to qualify as a space flight. The first powered test flights will likely remain within the atmosphere; the final series will head for the stars. Enterprise never passed the boundary where space begins. If Unity manages to, it will be a landmark moment for the commercial space industry, which has regained momentum thanks to billionaires such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk making high-profile advances in their own space operations.
It will also be welcome news for Virgin Galactic customers. There are approximately 700 “future astronauts” – Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Justin Bieber reportedly among them – who have paid $200,000-$250,000 (£155,000-£195,000) up front for a ticket. The only person who has been offered a free trip is Stephen Hawking. Booking opened 12 years ago, so for many it has been a long wait. If those final test flights are successful, the wait could at last be over.
Naturally, Branson intends to be one of the first passengers up. “I certainly would be very disappointed if I don’t go up next year. And I would hope it’s earlier than later in the year,” he says. “The programme says that we should be [testing] in space by December, as long as we don’t have any setbacks between now and then.” Setbacks are one thing, but what if the worst happens: could Virgin Galactic survive a second crash? “That was the most difficult conversation that George [Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic] and I had with each other the day after the last accident. We can’t guarantee that there won’t be another one, and we can’t guarantee that the next one won’t be technical. What would we do if that happened? How would we all feel?” says Branson. “We’d have to look at what had gone wrong and then decide at the time. But I’m not one for giving up. In my ballooning adventures we had many catastrophes but we kept pushing on. So my instinct would be that, whatever happens, we’ll carry on until we succeed.”
Sally Krusing never knew how much she wanted to go to space, until one day in 2004 when she agreed to help out a friend practice her life-coaching skills. Her friend asked, “What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” Without hesitation, Krusing replied, “I’d be an astronaut.” She was surprised at the conviction of her answer. Krusing had grown up in Tampa, Florida, and when the skies were clear she used to watch the rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral. They captured her imagination: in ninth grade, she made a plaster-of-Paris model of Jupiter for a school project. But she was no scientist, so she never dreamed of working for Nasa, and then life got in the way. “I didn’t go to college right out of high school, as my parents couldn’t afford it,” says the 69-year-old, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona. “So I got a job with Eastern Airlines. That’s the closest I got to space.”
A few years later, she did go to college, and tried to get back into aviation after graduating, but the airlines weren’t hiring. Instead, she took a marketing job with IBM. The conversation with her life-coach friend happened just before she retired in 2004, but she didn’t act on it – how could she? Then, in 2009 she travelled to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. On the plane she picked up a magazine and read, for the first time, about Virgin Galactic. She decided to go to space.
Back then, Virgin Galactic was charging $200,000 a ticket but permitted its customers to pay a ten per cent deposit on the basis that they’d pay the full amount shortly before flying. In 2012, Krusing paid $20,000 and was given a reservation number towards the back of the queue, around the 650 mark. Later, she was told that if she paid the full amount, she would be bumped up the list. The only option was to borrow money from the bank.
“I debated long and hard, and for a while I thought, ‘There is no way I can do this, I don’t see how I can possibly afford that,’ and I got depressed. I got anxious. Then I said, ‘You know, life is too short – you gotta just go for it.’ When I’m 80 or 90 I don’t want to look back and say, ‘I wish I had done this.'” She borrowed $100,000 and withdrew the final $80,000 from the savings she had been building since she was young. In return, she was given the reservation number 382. Krusing says she didn’t countenance pulling out after the 2014 accident. “There will be a lot of people going before I go. Any travel is not as safe as living in a cocoon so it doesn’t bother me at all. And if I crash, then that’s OK. I’ve had a good life.” Based on her number, Krusing anticipates flying in 2020.
Here’s how her trip to space will unfold. Krusing will travel to New Mexico and stay in one of Virgin Galactic’s designated hotels either at the small town of Las Cruces or the even smaller town of Truth Or Consequences. (That’s its real name: in 1950, the host of a radio quiz called Truth Or Consequences promised to broadcast the tenth anniversary edition from the first town that renamed itself after the show. Hot Springs obliged and the rest is history.) For four days, she will be whisked from here to Spaceport America, the site from which Virgin Galactic will fly its passengers. Designed by Foster & Partners, it is the world’s first commercial spaceport, a 110,000 sq ft structure in rust-coloured metal standing in the middle of the Jornada Del Muerto desert basin. From the air, it looks like a grounded UFO. Here, Krusing will undergo three days of training, getting to know the spaceship, rehearsing dry runs of the flight in a full mock-up simulator and learning how to manoeuvre in zero gravity (hint: “swimming” won’t help).
“The accident didn’t bother me at all. If I crash then that’s OK. I’ve had a good life.” Sally Krusing, Virgin Galactic future astronaut
On the morning of the fourth day she will rise early, as this is when flight conditions are best, and arrive at the site just shy of 4am. Once through security, she will pass a road sign reading “Asteroid Beltway” and another reading “Half Moon Street” (the location of Virgin Galactic’s original London offices) then pull up at the Spaceport’s “Gateway To Space” terminal, before making her way inside with her five fellow passengers to don a soft helmet and a flight suit made by the Adidas brand Y-3. They will take the lift down to say goodbye to friends and family, then walk out through the terminal’s enormous glass façade and into the New Mexico dawn.
At that time of the morning, the landscape will be still and unearthly, all orange skies and purple mountains. A fleet of Land Rover vehicles will shuttle the future astronauts to a SpaceShipTwo (possibly VSS Unity but more are in the works), which will be waiting, attached to the catamaran-style WhiteKnightTwo – the largest carbon-composite plane ever built – at the end of Spaceport’s 12,000 foot runway.
At around 7am, WhiteKnightTwo will take off, the would-be astronauts strapped in three rows of two inside the spacecraft hanging from its belly. After an hour, they will reach a height of 50,000 feet. The pilots will start a countdown then drop the spaceship into free flight. In the SpaceShipTwo cabin, there will be a moment of tranquillity as the noise of WhiteKnightTwo’s engines dies away, but it won’t last. Three seconds later, its rocket motor will ignite, blasting out 70,000 pound-force of thrust. The craft will accelerate rapidly, pressing passengers hard into their seats as they smash through the sound barrier, causing the spaceship to tremble. The SpaceShipTwo’s pilots will then point its nose directly up at the sky and roar to Mach 3.5 (4,322 km/h). Out of the cabin’s 12 large windows, Krusing will see the skies fade through deeper and darker shades of blue.
At 150,000 feet, beyond the bulk of the atmosphere, the rocket motor will cut out. Silence will fall, and momentum will carry them on up to 360,000 feet. The pilots will have rotated the hinged tail into position by now, flipping the spaceship on its back (the windows are mostly on the ceiling). They have made it to space. With automated cameras recording the adventure for posterity, Krusing and her co-passengers will now be permitted to unbuckle and float around the cabin. They will gaze down at the earth and, in the distance, its blue halo glowing in front of the star-flecked void. After about four minutes, they will be instructed to strap back into their seats. Gravity will start to take its course. They will descend as if in a space capsule, pulling five Gs as they hit the atmosphere. At 70,000 feet, the tail will be rotated back to its original position, turning SpaceShipTwo back into a plane. The pilots will glide towards the Spaceport. As the craft is now unpowered, they will have just one shot at a smooth landing. When she emerges, Krusing will be an astronaut.