Before Richard Branson's space plane crashed over the Mojave Desert last week, killing the co-pilot and badly injuring the pilot, somewhere between 500 and 700 people (depending on what news report you've been reading) had signed up to ride to the edge of space, but not out into the deep, dark void. Let's be generous and take the larger figure, so at US$250,000 a pop, that's an eventual $175 million, deposits paid.
But with the fragile-looking SpaceShipTwo capable of taking only six paying passengers at a time, that represents just over 116 flights destined to last two hours each and give the well-heeled a few moments of weightlessness. Then what? Is this a sustainable business that will return some of the hundreds of millions from investors such as the Abu Dhabi government and the state of New Mexico? Are there many hundreds more super-wealthy folks who are willing to go where the brave celebrities -- actors, singers, you-name-its -- have gone before? There are, but are they?
Despite last week's catastrophe -- not the result of a new fuel mix that exploded or rocket-engine failure, according to the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, but possibly owing to the erroneous unlocking of the tail mechanism too early -- Virgin Galactic, which is attempting to create the world's first spaceline, has vowed to move ahead with the project. But in the wake of this tragedy, there is grandiose talk that really is out of this world.
This week the company founded by billionaire Branson -- a dyslexic high-school dropout who started off selling records and moved on to airplanes and much more -- moved to counter widespread criticism that his latest project, now 10 years in the making, is little other than a joyride for the vacuously super-rich.
"For Virgin Galactic, everything rests on our vision of creating accessible and democratized space that will benefit humanity in countless ways for generations to come ... From research, to travel, to innovation, we believe that the technology our industry is pioneering is crucial to the advancement of humanity," the company said in a statement.
It's great to read but hard to believe -- especially when we've all been here before. Well, perhaps not all of us, and certainly not me. I hadn't yet arrived on Earth by time Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit our lonely and increasingly imperiled planet. The year was 1961, the decade of messy free love and a virgin planetary race to space that saw the United States beat out arch-rival Russia to land men on the Moon a mere eight years later.
So, no, with Branson's craft -- destroyed, yes, but a second is nearing completion -- only hurtling a mere 60 miles up into the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, using more or less conventional technology, there won't be any laudable benefits to humanity; instead, the planet will suffer on as yet more tons of carbon from burning fossil fuels are dumped upon us. Branson's feeble craft is, in reality, little other than a glorified airplane engaged in a depressing vanity project.
Virgin Galactic seems hopelessly named and hopelessly fated: It isn't anywhere near galactic; its craft don't even leave the confines of Earth. It's fair to say they will never get anywhere near our nearest neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, at least in our lifetimes and those of many more to come. The audacious project has, sadly -- and ultimately tragically, as three others were killed in a ground-based test-firing of a rocket in 2007 -- been constructed on hype and image, orchestrated by the savvy showman and boosted in the media by celebs' ready signing up for an outrageously expensive cheap thrill, when they really should know better (is it the blinkered-celestial view they hanker after or the "adulation" of being the first, even though they would be far from it?) -- but then all of this thrives on the fuel of publicity.
And as we reached the end of this week, Branson was still busy on social media and with posting blogs, reminding "future astronauts" who won't even go into orbit that their cash deposits remain "fully refundable" -- and that yet more people had signed up for the flight of fancy. (The company says 20 passengers cancelled following the accident.) He delighted in telling us that "we have had inquiries about purchasing Virgin Galactic tickets this week, including many new Future Astronauts either signing up or in the process of signing up to show solidarity with the team and the project."
In the end, it is Branson, propelled by an overarching sense of boyhood adventure, or desperate folly, and rocketing to establish himself in the pantheon of brave travel pioneers, who has become entangled in a Gordian knot of his own vainglorious making and from which he does not know how to untie himself. It could be the undoing of a once-great entrepreneur.