Today, suborbital space tourism company Virgin Galactic crossed an important milestone in spectacular fashion: The first rocket-powered flight of the SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Although it didn't go into space, the flight did go supersonic and created some truly awesome imagery (see below). Unfortunately, the history and culture of the company's development inspires no confidence in how it will proceed from here. For nearly a decade it has been, and apparently remains, a company that periodically generates a lot of excitement and then just goes nowhere for years for no apparent reason.
There's no denying it, this is awesome beyond the power of words:
You can't get much more science-fictiony than that. But there was another beautiful, science-fictiony thing a while back, and Richard Branson apparently never knew enough about it to learn from history:
As bizarre as it seems, a private company is repeating the strategic mistakes of the Space Shuttle program. You see, SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is not designed to be cheap, or simple, or to be mass-produced, or to spread new technologies into the aviation or rocketry industries: It is an utterly customized, Baroque vehicle that will probably never be purchased or leased by anyone other than Virgin Galactic, using innovations that don't appear to be applicable outside of enabling this particular spacecraft to fly this particular kind of flight. In other words, even if it becomes operational and has a long future career of taking passengers into low space, there's no industrial foundation to build on the accomplishment.
And that's if everything goes perfectly. The real problem with this approach shows up when things go wrong, or even just sub-optimally. When you build one customized thing on top of another ad nauseum, there's nowhere to turn when you run into problems - no preexisting alternate route to the same objective. You have to figure out some entirely new customized strategy to deal with the one that proved untenable. This is why $30,000 Hondas are more reliable than million-dollar Italian supercars: Because one of them is mass-produced on a giant scale to the point that the gremlins in the system are virtually eradicated while something like a Ferrari demands diligent maintenance. The level of Baroque technology in SS2 goes way beyond that level of customization: It's an entire industry unto itself, at ultra-low-volume - again, like the Space Shuttle.
So when there's any issue at all identified at some point in the testing program, no matter how basic, everything grinds to a halt. This is why it took five years after the successful spaceflights of the prototype (SS1) in 2004 before SS2 was even constructed, despite the enormous financial resources of the company via its principal backer, Richard Branson. And why the past four years since have been an arduous process of unpowered glide flights and aerodynamic tweaking, often with months in between tests where the ship just sat in the hangar. At one point they spent half a year of no activity while trying to figure out how best to tweak little aerodynamic stabilizers, and of course every fix carries the possibility of further problems. And while that was going on, tests of the rocket motor - always separate from the spacecraft - happened even more slowly.
But today, nearly a decade after the prototype actually flew into space, twice, they finally put the rocket engine into the spacecraft and fired it - though not into space. And it looked awesome. But it's impossible to forget the context in which this occurred, because the past is prologue. They say they hope to advance the powered flight testing quickly enough to go into space before the end of the year, but then they had hoped they would be doing powered flight testing in 2009; then it was 2010; then 2011; then 2012...and they never gave much of an explanation for why. It just dragged on, and on, and on. The construction process of the vehicles had dragged on seemingly forever, then the glide flight testing program did likewise, and now they're finally entering powered testing. How do you think that's going to go?
Given that this is the first time the entire system - aircraft and rocket - are operating in an integrated fashion, all sorts of gremlins are going to crop up, possibly including things that were missed in the earlier testing regimens, and they might be very complex. So while I want to believe them that they'll be flying into space by the end of the year, I have no confidence that they will. Every minor hiccup will produce months of delays, and each additional hiccup will be multiplicative rather than additive to the delay. So I can't even say with any level of confidence that they'll even be in space by the end of next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. As before, at some point there will simply be a test with results they don't like, and then we just won't hear from them again for three months, five months, eight months, then there'll be another test and the process repeats.
In other words, they don't have much confidence in their own spacecraft. Every significant delay is an indication that they don't even trust it enough to risk elite test pilots flying it, let alone paying passengers. And all the while they advertise their absolute terror of their own spacecraft as a "commitment to safety," even though safety comes from testing, not avoidance of testing. But let's imagine that they finally go into space, whenever that proves to be. What happens next? Do they enter commercial operations and start flying paying passengers? Nope. Now they start the spaceflight testing part of the program, flying complete mission profiles. In other words, the process repeats once again, with even more opportunities for massive delay. And that's if nothing truly catastrophic happens, because if it did then years of delays would probably be guaranteed - once again, just like the Space Shuttle.
Given what we're seeing here, this kind of approach carries a significant possibility that they will never enter operational spaceflight service, no matter how much money they have at their disposal. But even if/when they do, now the most fundamental strategic flaws of Virgin Galactic come to fruition and we see just how ill-conceived the whole endeavor is: It's designed to transport six people at a time per commercial flight, meaning that a fatal accident would be on the same scale of tragedy as a Shuttle explosion, but instead of being the deaths of intrepid professional astronauts they would be millionaires looking for a fun time who'd been sold on Virgin Galactic's foolish mantra of "Safety, safety, safety." Millionaires with families who might not be as interested in the abstract importance of spaceflight.
Instead of reciting this mantra of safety, from the very beginning they should have said, "Of course it's not safe. It won't be safe for decades. We're offering people the opportunity to participate in the process of making it safe by being early private space flyers." People jump off of buildings and bridges, jump out of planes and helicopters, swim with sharks and photograph lions, and they die constantly from it - they don't need to be told that spaceflight will be like a paddle boat on a lake. And the fact that they are being told that just sets the stage for any catastrophe to be far more damaging that it has to be. So even if they enter operations, every single flight will put the entire company in jeopardy, and threaten to send it back into the quagmire of testing if not just terminate the endeavor altogether.
But let's assume no catastrophe ever happens, and they operate as well as they can for as long as they can. Do the math on the service they're offering: $200,000 for one period of weightlessness that's about 6 minutes long with some great black-sky views out the windows. Compare that with the service offered by Zero Gravity Corporation (Zero-G) - a company that flies parabolic dives in ordinary jet aircraft to simulate weightlessness. Their ticket prices are $5,000 for a total of 450 seconds (7.5 minutes) of weightlessness, divided into 15 periods of 30 seconds each, although there are no windows because there's nothing to see. Zero-G has been operational for years, and now flies almost every other week.
The evolutionary pathway for evolving upward from Zero-G is a lot simpler and more straightforward than for Virgin Galactic to build on its plans: Once they or a competitor have enough money, just modify existing aircraft for higher altitudes and longer dives - innovations that might actually be relevant to general aviation. While Virgin Galactic was charging $200,000 for 7 minutes and grounding their fleet for months every time some hiccup occurred, Zero-G or some future competitor could be charging $10,000 for over a dozen jaunts of two-minute weightlessness in overwhelmingly conventional aircraft, and possibly going high enough for windows to be worthwhile (indigo sky, rather than black sky).
Of course, Zero-G never says much about its plans or operations, so there are no guarantees about what they or any competitor they ultimately have will do, but one thing does appear certain: Virgin Galactic is a cul-de-sac on the road to the stars.