Space dust? More like spaced out

It shouldn’t be surprising that an event like last week’s explosion in Mojave has resulted in its share of both good and bad reporting. However, an article in is a particularly egregious example of poor reporting on this topic. The article argues that Richard Branson’s “entire commercial space tourism dream is in tatters” because of the explosion, “and nobody can guarantee whether Virgin Galactic will ever make it into space.” True, but few things in life, as the saying goes, are guaranteed.

So lets look at some of the facts and statements in the article. An example: “Branson has invested US$600m into the venture and taken a staggering US$200m in advance ticket sales.” Both are, by any estimate, wild exaggerations. Virgin officials have previously stated that it will spend $225-250 million by the time it begins commercial operations. As recently as last month, at the NewSpace 2007 conference, Virgin’s Alex Tai said that the company has taken in about $25 million in deposits.

Another howler: “The company’s investigation into the incident could take nearly two months, but before then, a separate inquiry by NASA may decide to revoke Virgin Galactic’s licence to develop rockets at the base.” Where to begin? First of all, NASA isn’t involved in this process at all, in granting licenses or otherwise. It’s also unclear what sort of license you would need “to develop rockets at the base”, short of, perhaps, some sort of permits regarding the use or storage of particular chemicals and the like.

And another, right after the previous: “Given the growing speculation that some parts of SpaceShipTwo were based on the same design as the doomed Challenger Space Shuttle, that remains a strong possibility.” All you can say to that is, huh?

Part of the article is based on comments made by an unnamed “senior Virgin Galactic executive”, including this quote: “if NASA steps in then obviously that kind of decision is out of our hands.” This ignorance about NASA’s (non-)role in regulating the industry suggests that this person is not a senior exec with the company, or even affiliated with the company at all.

There’s more, but at this point it would be piling on. (Although perhaps George French of Rocketplane Inc. will appreciate the promotion to “billionaire”, not to mention Geoff Sheerin to “tycoon”.) The main question is: do we ascribe this article to ignorance or malice?

14 comments to Space dust? More like spaced out

  • Thomas Matula


    Its Malice.

    The author’s name rang a bell, so I did a google and found why I remembered it since it was a case I used in a Business Ethics class.
    Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 18:41 GMT 19:41 UK
    Mirror rapped over shares scandal

    He seems to have it in for Richard Branson as he also did another piece on VG in May which was just as bad.

    And for my next trick, you’ll think you’re in space
    by Anil Bhoyrul on Sunday, 06 May 2007

    Which you referenced as well on May 11 under Desert Skepticism

    And has a track record with messing with Sir Richard beyond space.

    [[[TALK ABOUT big phoneys… Anil Bhoyrul the City Slickster has become Ali Bhoyrul the Arab Trickster, if the impeccably truthful Sir Richard Branson (pictured) is to be believed.

    Bhoyrul, now editor of Dubaibased Arabian Business, was accused of making dodgy calls to the Virgin boss, cancelling an interview Branson was to have with rival magazine 7Days, and later calling the unsuspecting interviewer telling him the interview would take place at a different hotel.]]].

    Case closed.

  • Nic

    Ignorance, I hope. Malice, I fear.

    (and SpaceShipTwo’s eventual success– for that, I yearn.)

  • ASA

    This has smear money written all over it.

    This may seem goofy, but, well….

    Anyone have any idea how much money is at stake here? Now, in the near future, and in the far future?

    I know, I know. I’m an idiot. But it flashed through my mind. I’m reminded of PRIVATEERS by Ben Bova.

  • FC

    Both, in the form of everyday journalistic fraud.

  • Jim

    A friend — who I won’t quote by name since I don’t have his permission — argues that this is mostly anti-Branson smear tactics by his European competitors (in major industry sectors, not VG). I am as worried by the unnamed source from Space Adventures launching a broadside at VG, leading to Will Whitehorn’s counterattack.

    This is *not* a good beginning for this industry.

  • John Gedmark

    Officials from Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic have confirmed to the Personal Spaceflight Federation that the article contains multiple, completely fabricated quotes from both companies.

  • Ignorance is frequently underestimated.

  • LOL! George will love that escalation in wealth.

  • Robert Horning

    Far from not being a good beginning to the or “new space” industry, I think this is a very positive development… as it exposes people for being ignorant and discredits the reporter in a significant manner.

    Keep in mind that most journalists are usually not techno-geeks who have a solid understanding of scientific principles and what is usually related to legal regulations on engineering practices. There are some notable exceptions, but they are exceptions.

    Even a reporter with as much credibility as Walter Cronkite was noted as being wildly inaccurate when he was reporting about the Apollo program back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. And he even did his homework. If you have any knowledge about rocket science and propulsion engineering, or even celestial mechanics, you will find those broadcasts that tried to describe the early Apollo flights to be overly simplistic and sometimes condescending.

    Now that these “critics” have exposed themselves for exactly what they are, it also exposes reasonable ideas like the concept that NASA has nothing to do with commercial spaceflight but instead is governed by a branch of the FAA. And that is only for manned commercial spaceflight at that. Or quietly informing these reporters that even NASA has to seek vehicle permits from the U.S. Department of Transportation. And get FAA airspace clearance when launching vehicles. None of this is news to those in the “know”, but may be news to some of these reporters.

  • Garry

    ….Yes ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the cutthroat aerospace industry!

  • Thomas Matula


    That is a wide brush you are painting the profession of jouralism with.

    Keep in mind this is a foreign reporter writing for a mid-eastern news outlet who has an axe to grind with Sir Richard Branson. And he was already run out of England for similar behavior.

    Also Walter Cronkite descriptions of spaceflight in the 1960’s was no more simplistic then the writings of Clarke, Asimov or Heinlien n the days before spaceflight and astronautics was common knowledge. Its easy to look back now, from the perspective of a generation raised on space exploration and CGI and say they were “simplistic”.

  • Peter Shearer

    Watch the Discovery channel DVD “Black Sky” on the development of SS1. It’s oversimplified left and right… Some things are even explained incorrectly to keep Scaled’s secrets secret.

    I’m sure the producer and editor did a lot of the “dumbing down” to help the average person understand… But it’s sad that the movie industry continually dumbs things down even when their experts are telling them how things work. “…But this looks cooler!” says the movie executive.

    I still run into a lot of people that think that gravity disappears once you reach the altitude of space and are shocked (or disbelieving) when I tell them that spacecraft actually continually fall around the curvature of the Earth. This is the state of scientific illiteracy in the United States… Next time you see a budget increase for schools VOTE YES!

  • Thomas Matula

    News Flash,

    Only a very small percentage of the public is interested in space flight, physics or science. If you make the shows too high brow you will only get a clone of NASA TV, with the same number of advetisers – zero. And lose the audience who pays the bills.

    Or to put it another way, if you want market driven media then you have to focus it on the market. And let the market judge good from bad.

    And yes I do vote yes on education. Kids are also not getting the culutral literacy they should have with the focus on standardized tests in math and reading. Instead they are just teaching to the tests.

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