News and Views
Richard Branson’s biographer on how the Virgin tycoon is scrabbling to save what remains of his reputation – and his fortune – after space plane crash
Richard Branson has not yet publicly announced whether he will attend the funeral of Michael Alsbury, the 39-year-old test pilot killed when the spacecraft Virgin Galactic exploded over the Mojave Desert last Friday.
Since the question now being asked is whether Branson’s determination to send tourists into space may have contributed to Alsbury’s fate, it might be the least Virgin’s founder could do. Branson knows he is fighting for his reputation and what remains of his fortune.
He arrived at the desolate airbase 24 hours after the disaster in sombre mood. Friday’s test flight was meant to mark the beginning of his fightback against those critics who, for the past decade, have damned his space business as dangerous.
Repeatedly, Branson was told by engineers and scientists that the rocket was an explosion waiting to happen. Geoff Daly, a U.S.-based British rocket scientist, told me how he had sent emails to the American Federal Aviation Authority last year in which he warned that if further test flights went ahead, the results could be catastrophic.
A number of senior executives have quit the project — most recently, Jim Tighe, who had been the rocket’s aerodynamic mastermind for more than ten years. Eight weeks ago, Tighe suspected that the design changes which Virgin Galactic required were too dangerous, but he could not fight against the countdown imposed by Branson.