Final Frontier

Can Richard Branson Bounce Back From His Space Disaster?

Emboldened by news that SpaceShipTwo’s fuel tanks did not explode, the Branson fightback begins with a vow that he--and his family--will still travel to space with Virgin Galactic.

Brian Melley/AP

It was a quintessential Richard Branson moment. And how could any of us have ever expected anything less?

With the wreckage of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo still being pored over by investigators in the swirling sands of the Mojave desert, the greatest spinner in business took to the airwaves to recast the epic disaster as a mere waymarker on the road to ultimate success.

He may have looked a little more strained and ill at ease than usual, but as Branson dramatically announced live on TV that he intends to pursue his dream of commercial flights to space—and insisted that he will be on Virgin Galactic’s first flight, together with his family—the familiar Branson blend of underdog chutzpah, lofty idealism and, above all, an unswerving commitment to communicating the “key message points” (there’s nothing wrong with our rockets, this is going ahead, and it will be so safe that I will bet my family’s life on it) so beloved of media trainers were all very much on display.

“We must push on. There are incredible things that can happen through mankind being able to explore space properly,” he told Sky News today in one of a series of defiant live interviews he gave from his home on Necker Island.

“We will not start taking people until we’ve finished a whole massive series of test flights and until myself and my family have gone up, and until we feel that we can safely say to people ‘we’re ready to go,’” he said.

Taken together, the series of interviews that Branson gave today—he also spoke to Matt Lauer on NBC, Bloomberg and the BBC—clearly show the steeliness of Branson’s business mind.

It was a stunning reversal of the guarded position Branson took over the weekend when he said that Virgin Galactic would not “push blindly on”, which was widely interpreted as presaging the abandonment of the space tourism project.

Branson came out fighting after Christopher Hart, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, threw Virgin Galactic a lifeline when he told reporters that, pilot error was “a possibility,” and said NTSB investigators found the aircraft’s fuel tanks, oxidizer tanks, and engine intact among the wreckage.

Branson seized on this detail, telling the BBC: “If you go back and read the Sunday press, you now realize there was no rocket explosion, no fuel tank explosion. It was all garbage.”

Were the NTSB to pin the blame for the disaster on the pilots would be remarkably convenient for Virgin Galactic, but José Mariano López-Urdiales, founder and CEO of Spanish company zero2infinity, which plans to loft space tourists 36KM above the earth in helium balloons, is one of many who still suspects the engine, not the pilots, may indeed be to blame.

“The fact the engine did not blow up does not mean it is not the cause of the accident,” he told the Daily Beast. “The level of vibrations caused by the choice of engine could have caused the system to deploy the feather. I am not saying I know what caused it, but I know that the vibrations of the engine could have broken the ship.”

López-Urdiales is a long time critic of the choice of engines using nitrous oxide, and told the Daily Beast just two weeks ago: “Many people think they made a fundamental mistake in the engine choice, not using natural gas. A lot of people have tried to help them—including me, I have tried to introduce people to them—but they don’t want to listen.”

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Branson said that there had been “overwhelming global support” and that two people had signed up for flights on the day of the disaster.

Behind all today’s interviews was a determined effort to allay investor nerves—after all, what Virgin Galactic really doesn’t need right now is the equivalent of a bank run, where the 700 passengers who have each put down deposits of up to $100,000 toward the cost of the $250,000 flight start asking for their money back.

Branson is, in short, spinning furiously.

And if Branson’s previous form is any guide, you would be unwise to bet against him bouncing back personally from this unmitigated disaster—although the chances Virgin Galactic will ever actually carry paying passengers into space are now as close to zero as they have ever been.

Although he once said, “I will work day and night to avoid failure,” Branson has always had the knack of selling his failures as essential learning experiences, and this is quite clearly the narrative that he is now attempting to impose on the fatal events of Friday.

For example, Branson often tells the story of how Virgin Records was born out of the failure of a national student magazine he started. The magazine didn’t make the returns he had hoped, so he started a mail-order music business, which he advertised in the magazine, to support the publication. The mail-order business took off, so he closed the magazine and started a record shop.

He even went so far as to entitle one blog post (since sadly deleted) “How To Succeed at Failure.”

“The key to bouncing back,” he once said, “is to learn whatever lessons you can from the experience so that you can avoid making the same mistakes in the next launch.”

Branson’s most famous failure was Virgin Cola, unveiled in 1994 as a rival to Coca-Cola. The brand has since disappeared. Virgin Clothes, Virgin Vie (cosmetics), Virgin Vision, Virgin Vodka, Virgin Wine, Virgin Jeans, Virgin Brides, Virgin Cosmetics and Virgin Cars are just a sampling of the other brands that have perished, unloved, on the choppy seas of competition.

Of course, most of these failures are thought to have cost Branson little as he had minimal involvement in the company, instead licensing the Virgin brand to a company that has purchased a subsidiary from him. Virgin Mobile USA, for example, is a case in point.

Virgin Galactic is not so dissimilar. Despite sir Richard’s close identification with the brand, at least 37% of it is owned by the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, Aabar.

The Sheiks may yet find that when push comes to shove, Branson will choose to follow the ultimate lesson that a brief survey of his business career suggests that failure has taught him—ditch the failing brand and concentrate on something else.

May we suggest an airline?