A new biography of Sir Richard Branson, being published in the United Kingdom this week and excerpted today in the Sunday Times of London, outlines the lengthy delays that Virgin Galactic has experienced developing SpaceShipTwo, including claims that as recently as late 2012 developers considered replacing the vehicle’s hybrid rocket engine.
Branson: Behind the Mask is actually the second biography of Branson written by Tom Bower, a British author who has written a number of books on personalities ranging from politician Gordon Brown to entertainer Simon Cowell. Bower previously wrote Branson in 2000, before Virgin Galactic started work on SpaceShipTwo. At least part of the new book is devoted to Virgin Galactic, based on the excerpt published in the Sunday Times. (The full article is available only to subscribers, unfortunately. For those anxious to read it, the newspaper does offer a 30-day subscription trial for just £1, or about US$1.65. Some other newspapers will also later reprint Times of London articles without a paywall barrier, but whether they will reprint this excerpt, and when, is uncertain.)
Much of the excerpt deals with the development, and the corresponding delays, of SpaceShipTwo. When Branson first announced plans for Virgin Galactic in 2004, he claimed the company would enter service in 2007. It hasn’t yet, more than six years later, and the company is now planning on it starting commercial flights in the second half of this year. Bower, like many observers, pins those delays on problems with the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motor, which uses a solid fuel like rubber and a liquid oxidizer, nitrous oxide.
Much of that delay had to do with the July 2007 accident in Mojave where the detonation of a tank of nitrous oxide destroyed a test stand, killing three Scaled Composites employees. The excerpt begins with a dramatic recounting of the explosion, which Bower revisits later in the article, suggesting that the company tried to mislead the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator, Randy Chase, assigned to investigate the accident:
Ignorant about rocket motors and nitrous oxide, Chase was cast into a scientific wilderness among engineers keen to steer him away from any conclusion that might damage Mojave’s most prominent customer.
After clocking up nearly 1,000 hours at Mojave, he blamed careless safety procedures, which meant there was no reason for the local sheriff even to hold a coroner’s inquest. Rutan’s company was fined $25,000 for safety violations.
Rutan’s engineers later discovered the real cause of the accident: the composite liner inside the tank had dissolved and contaminated the nitrous oxide, leading to the explosion.
It’s worth noting that a separate analysis of the final Cal/OSHA report, obtained under a state public records act, says nothing about a dissolving liner in the nitrous tank, but instead blames the hot temperatures at the time of the test that put the nitrous oxide into a supercritical state.
Bower suggests the continuing problems developing SpaceShipTwo’s engine caused management changes at both Virgin Galactic and Scaled:
Nonetheless, Branson could no longer disregard his skewed timetable. George Whitesides, Nasa’s former chief of staff, became head of Virgin Galactic in place of Whitehorn, who had failed to deliver the rocket. And Rutan retired. Ill health was given as the reason, although another explanation may have been his failure to deliver a successful motor.
At a November 2012 meeting Branson attended, Scaled’s new leadership reported argued for replacing the hybrid motor with a liquid-propellant one:
Doug Shane, who had replaced Rutan as chief designer, proposed building a completely new engine using liquid fuel. Branson replied that he needed something immediately. Shane reassured his boss that the rocket would make a powered flight during 2013. There would be spectacular flights amid bursts of publicity. In private, they also agreed to develop an alternative motor powered by conventional fuel.
Virgin is developing two liquid-propellant engines that use RP-1 and liquid oxygen, and announced just a few days ago that the two engines had completed an initial series of tests. However, those engines are being developed for the company’s separate LauncherOne uncrewed small satellite launch vehicle, and plans for that vehicle, including the use of non-hybrid engines, predate that late-2012 meeting Bower recounts. Parabolic Arc reported earlier this month that Scaled has been testing an alternative hybrid motor that uses a nylon-based solid fuel, but this isn’t discussed in the book excerpt.
Much of the excerpt deals with the repeated claims by Branson that commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo were only a year or two away, even as that schedule continued to slip, and how much of the media accepted those claims unquestioningly. It fits into a broader narrative of Branson that Bower makes: that Branson is more style than substance, a showman whose profile is diminishing along with the financial performance of Virgin’s various businesses, which Branson is not involved with on a day-to-day basis. “The impression following his reluctant admission that he no longer actively managed his empire was of an ageing sun lizard,” Bower writes.
Bower provides few sources for his information, including the claims that Scaled proposed switching to a liquid-propellant engine in late 2012, so verifying those statements is difficult. In a couple of cases, though, there are errors in his recounting of events that are in the public domain. For example, Bower writes this about how Branson decided to pursue a deal with Scaled Composites back in 2004:
In September 2004, White Knight, a twin-fuselage plane, took off carrying the rocket SpaceShipOne. Strapped inside it were a pilot and a casket with the cremated remains of Rutan’s mother, who had died in 2000.
At 50,000ft White Knight released SpaceShipOne, which soared at three times the speed of sound before crossing the winning tape 62 miles above Earth. After three minutes of weightlessness, it glided back to California.
Branson was convinced. In exchange for adding the Virgin Galactic brand name to SpaceShipOne, he offered $1m. His audacity in business is to bid low in order to try to tilt the deal in his favour from the outset: because he wants a bargain and because he has considerably less money than wealth-watchers assume. His sales patter is consistent: “We’re risking Virgin’s invaluable name, and you’re getting all the upside.”
The excerpt suggests that Branson decided to reach a deal with Scaled after the first of the two flights SpaceShipOne performed to win the Ansari X PRIZE in late September 2004. In fact, Virgin and Scaled made that announcement on September 27, two days before the first of the two prize flights, likely after weeks, if not months, of negotiations. Moreover, the $1-million offer, if correct, was probably only the beginning of the fees Branson paid to Scaled and to Paul Allen, who licensed SpaceShipOne’s technology to Virgin for SpaceShipTwo. In his 2011 memoir, Idea Man, Allen said he got a “net positive return” on the $28 million he invested in SpaceShipOne through the prize money, licensing fees, and the tax writeoff he got from donating SpaceShipOne to the National Air and Space Museum. Since Allen split the $10-million prize with Scaled, he likely got significantly more than $1 million from Virgin unless the tax writeoff of SpaceShipOne’s donation was extremely large.
And, speaking of SpaceShipOne in the National Air and Space Museum, Bower writes, “Within days, the prestigious Smithsonian Institution in Washington agreed to exhibit the rocket in its permanent collection of aviation milestones. Daily thousands of visitors would gaze at the iconic logo — Virgin Galactic — emblazoned on the tailfin.” Except that SpaceShipOne, when it was installed in the museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery in 2005, was “restored” to its appearance on its first suborbital spaceflight in June 2004, before the deal with Virgin. There are no Virgin Galactic logos on SpaceShipOne in the museum.
These might seem like minor errors, and in the bigger scheme of things, they are. However, when you see errors in the material you know about, you wonder about the accuracy of the material you don’t know. Without more detailed sourcing (which may be included in the full book) one should take some of the claims with a degree of skepticism.
(Note: despite some reports the book will also be published this week in the US, there is no official publication date for Branson: Behind the Mask in the US. The Amazon.com page for the book last week gave a February 28 publication date, but as of Sunday it simply states that the book is “currently unavailable.”)