Eighteen months on from the crash that left Richard Bransons space project in doubt, Virgin Galactic is back. We talk to Branson and his team

Drive north-east out of Los Angeles, and when the suburban sprawl finally gives out, the terrain looks more and more unearthly parched scrub, lunar ridges and vast cloudless skies. This is the Mojave desert, offering few attractions to the casual visitor but the perfect environment in which to testaircraft.

Its in these barren parts that the Edwards air force base is located, where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time, and where the test pilots celebrated in Tom Wolfes The Right Stuff proved their mettle before going on to become Americas first astronauts. And it was here, at the Mojave Air and Space Port, that Virgin Galactics VSS Enterprise took off on its fourth powered test flight on 31 October 2014. At that point, 18 months ago, Richard Bransons vision of sending members of the public into space seemed to be on the edgeofrealisation.

Since the discontinuation of the space shuttle programme in 2011, Nasa has largely given up on sending people into space. And while there is plenty of interest in unmanned expeditions, like the New Horizons probe that sent dramatic pictures back from Pluto last year, what has always fired the publicimagination is the humancomponent.

If its absence has left a void in human experience, Branson is one of several entrepreneurs who also see it as a gap in a new market. His was the first operation dedicated to civilian space travel but hes recently been joined by two others. Elon Musk, the billionaire who took PayPal to market and is behind Tesla Motors, set up Space X as a private space cargo company. It has a contract to supply the international space station, but Musk has also announced plans to send humans into space.

A more direct rival is Blue Origin, a space travel company set up by Amazons Jeff Bezos, who announced last month that he aims to send people into space by 2017, although the first passengers will not be payingcustomers.

The new SpaceShipTwo craft, VSS Unity, is essentially the same as Voyager, which crashed 18 months ago. Modifications include a safety lock to prevent the premature initiation of the feathering system that downed Voyager. Photograph: Barry J Holmes for the Observer

Only just over 500 people have ever travelled into space that rather arbitrary line thats defined as 100km above Earths surface. Bransons plan was to rapidly expand that number, but by October 2014 this had already taken much longer than he had anticipated. Ten years earlier Branson had set up Virgin Galactic and gone into business with Scaled Composite, a company created by Burt Rutan, the renowned aerospace engineer who built SpaceShipOne, the first privately constructed and owned spacecraft to reach space.

SpaceShipOne had been funded by Microsofts Paul Allen as a scientific challenge rather than a commercial enterprise. But Branson wanted to build the worlds first spaceline for civilians, and with Rutan on board he announced that the first public space flights would begin in 2007. And the first passenger would be one Richard Branson. That turned out to be a wildly ambitious prediction. But then Bransons brand image with his attention-grabbing air balloon and powerboat escapades is based on wild ambition.

And on that bright October day in California, it must have seemed as if Bransons commercial blast-off was finally in sight. That was until the Enterprise broke up in mid-air, killing the co-pilot Michael Alsbury, but miraculously leaving the pilot-in-command, Peter Siebold, to fall 10 miles and survive.

It was an incredible descent in which the injured, oxygen-starved and freezing Siebold slipped in and out of consciousness while managing to free himself from his pilots seat, thus enabling his parachute to open automatically at around 20,000ft and deliver him, broken-boned but alive, to the ground.

At that moment the future of Virgin Galactic seemed to lie with the Enterprise in ruins in the desert. As Branson rushed to the crash site he was filled with doubts about the projects survival. For 12 hours after the accident we were very much trying to decide whether it was worth the risk of continuing, he tells me. Im not the sort of person who gives up on things. The first time we crossed the Atlantic in the balloon it crashed, and we went on and did the Pacific. First time we crossed the Atlantic in a boat it sank, and we went on and got the record. So, generally speaking, we will pick ourselves up, brush ourselves down and carry on. But in the first 12 hours we did not know if any of the accident was our fault or whether it was a technical issue that couldnt berectified.

Then it became clear that the crash was the consequence of a catastrophic pilot error. Alsbury had prematurely released a lever that controlled the aircrafts moveable tail section, triggering a chain of events that resulted in the crafts mid-air break-up.

Mistakes happen in test flights, and the death of test pilots has not been uncommon in the history of space flight. But the history of space flight has been governmental or military and therefore subject to different expectations. Nasa reported a 3% fatality rate when it was busy sending people up to space.

As Branson said just eight months before the accident: For a government-owned company, you can just about get away with losing 3% of your clients. For a private company you cant really lose anybody.

He was talking about paying clients, but, still, any loss of life was bad publicity and potentially a commercial death knell especially considering the cost of a ticket to space. The first 100 future astronauts who signed up for Virgin Galactics journey to 100km above the Earth had paid $200,000 for the privilege. A further 600, who would follow the first 100 into space, put down a sizeable deposit on a $250,000 ticket. All 700 would experience zero-gravity for six minutes and look down on the planet curving away beneath them. But no one wants to lay out that kind of money to die.

Virgin Galactics chief test pilot, Dave Mackay. At first there is silence, he says, and then the engines fire up and you blast off, and it really gets going. Forget seeing the Earth from space: The journey up there will be the thing, says Mackay. Photograph: Barry J Holmes for the Observer

Virgin Galactic put out a statement in which it appeared to distance itself from the accident, noting that it was its partner Scaled Composite that was responsible for the flight, and the two pilots were Scaled employees. Previous communiques about successful flights had not made such distinctions.

In the event very few future astronauts pulled out. Nevertheless Virgin, whose new manufacturing arm the Spaceship Company was already building a second spacecraft, suspended ticket sales. A subsequent investigation by the US National Transportation Safety Board found that there was a failure by Scaled Composite to consider and protect against human error.

Sixteen months on from the crash, Scaled Composite had been removed from the picture, and the worlds media were invited back to Mojave to see the unveiling of the new spacecraft

Mojave Air and Space Port is not just a site for aeronautical births, its also a giant graveyard for old and disused aircraft that sit around, sometimes for years on end, slowly being corroded or cannibalised. Its an eerie setting in many ways, a limitless vista of futuristic visions and broken dreams, of soaring ambition and once-modern flying machines brought sadly back down to earth.

Around the airport are dotted a number of giant hangars. In one of these, hundreds of Virgin Galactic and the Space Company personnel and media representatives and future astronauts are gathered to witness the first public viewing of the new aircraft.

Among them is Dave Mackay, a bald, short, quietly spoken man in his late 50s. Youd walk past him in the street without taking a second look, but he is Virgin Galactics chief test pilot and therefore possesses the kind of nerveless courage that is the preserve of a tiny fraction of humanity.

Mackays lifelong aspiration has been to be an astronaut. Thats why he became an RAF pilot. He always hoped Britain would develop a space programme but by the time he quit the RAF in 1995 and joined Virgin Atlantic to fly Boeing 747s, he had given up on that dream. Then along came Virgin Galactic, and space beckoned oncemore.

He had piloted the test flight immediately before the one that crashed in 2014. Did Alsburys death make him think again? Michaels death was devastating for everyone here, he says. He was a lovely man. But no, it didnt make me reconsider. Im used to it. Three of my colleagues in the RAF died. When I first heard about the death rate among fighter pilots I couldnt believe it. But you adjust to it. And thats the same with being a test pilot. We paid our respects to Michael but then continued with the job.

He tells me about the exhilaration of flying in SpaceShipTwo. Adapted from Burt Rutans design for SpaceShipOne, the spacecraft or vehicle as everyone calls it in Mojave is carried into the air by a mothership, the twin-fuselage WhiteKnightTwo. SpaceShipTwo is designed with Rutans revolutionary feathering mechanism, a shape-changing airfoil that creates a shuttlecock effect on re-entry, and helps the aircraft unlike those used by Space X and Blue Origin to land on a runway. On take-off, the mothership releases the spacecraft at 50,000 feet. At first there is silence, says Mackay, and then the engines fire up and you blast off, and it really gets going.

Branson, pictured with his son Sam, daughter-in-law Isabella and grandchild Eva-Deia, has long said he will be on Virgin Galactics maiden voyage, along with members of his family. Photograph: Barry J Holmes for the Observer

He compares it to putting your foot down in a performance car if the acceleration could go on for over a minute. Only its so much greater than that. He tells Virgin marketing people that theyve got it wrong: they sell it on zero gravity and the experience of looking back down at the curvature of the Earth. But, he says without a trace of hyperbole, I believe the journey up there will be the thing.

Inside the hangar we hear speeches from Virgin Galactic bigwigs, trumpeting what a fabulous achievement the new aircraft is. But its essentially the same as the one that crashed, with a few minor alterations, including a safety lock to prevent the premature initiation of the feathering system that led to the crash. This event in the desert is not the launch of a new aircraft more testing is required before it leaves the ground. Its not even a product launch, because the new product is largely the same as the old one. But it could be seen as a relaunch of Virgin Galactic a chance to announce to the world that everything is fine and back on track.

For that reason, perhaps, there is a sense of corporate nervousness in the air. A figure of $500m has been mentioned as the amount so far invested in the venture. Thats a lot to lose if things go pear shaped. Understandably, no one wants to spend too much time reflecting on the accident. Alsburys name is mentioned but its a swift reference to the past before moving quickly on to the glorious future. The note that everyone strives for is epic, historic and optimistic.

Together we open space to change the world for good, is the Virgin Galactic mission statement, repeated several times. There are recorded messages from Stephen Hawking, who hopes to be among the first passengers, and the young human rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai. Sarah Brightman, one of the future astronauts, sings Happy Birthday to Bransons one-year-old granddaughter. Theres a valedictory sentimentality to proceedings, as if humanity itself was preparing to vacate the Earth.

Amid the songs, speeches and testaments comes the curtain-raising moment as Branson rides out in a Land Rover sponsor of the project towing the new SpaceShipTwo named VSS Unity. Hes dressed in a black leather bikers jacket, blue jeans and a crisp white shirt, his flowing snowy locks swept back to his collar and his goatee beard and moustache broken by a trademark beaming smile.

He looks like a retired Hells Angel from the stockbroker belt, but it works. This is the man the media has come to see: Branson the eternal billionaire rebel; the consummate self-promoting businessman; the man who has jazzed up planes, trains and now, he hopes, spacecraft. In a hail of flashbulbs, Virgin Galactic is back in business.

Would Branson be disappointed if in two years time the first flight had still not been made? I would be astounded, he replies. Photograph: Barry J Holmes for the Observer

But what makes people want to travel to space? Branson likes to compare it to the early days of jet travel. That was prohibitively expensive for the vast majority, but just as jet travel has come to the point where many millions now fly, so one day, he says, will space travel. But those early jet passengers had destinations. Six minutes in suborbital space cant really be described as a destination. So whats the attraction?

Branson believes the question requires no answer for half the people in the world because they instinctively understand the desire to go to space. For the benefit of the other half, he suggests its a means of getting to know ourselves better, and in particular to respect our miraculous place in the universe. He tells me: We have one planet in our solar system thats habitable and thats the Earth, and space travel can transform things back here for the better. First of all by just having people go to space and look back on this fragile planet we live on. People have come back transformed and have done fantastic things. Theres a wonderful book called The Overview Effect, which has interviews with all the people whove been to space and [tells of] their experiences, and how its changed them. I look forward to being changed in a positive way.

Put this way, and leaving aside the commercial potential, the journey becomes less spatial than spiritual.

There is room on board for six passengers. Branson has long said he will be on the first flight along with family members, several of whom, including his 92-year-old mother, were present in Mojave. But which family members? Well have to see nearer the time, he says. The whole family want to go: nephews, nieces, everyone except my wife. Both my children have now got their hands full with babies, so its possible that on the initial flight Ill go up on my own and theyll go up on subsequent flights. Well make that decision in six or nine months time.

For the original 100 who paid out $200,000, there is a lottery system to decide who goes when. Several celebrities are rumoured to be among the group, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, but none were present at Mojave.

However, many non-celebrity future astronauts were there, among them Ed Holliday, a youthful-looking 72-year-old from West Virginia just like Chuck Yeager. Like Branson, he found the question of why he wanted to go to space barely worth raising. I always say thats the backwards question. Why would you not want to do this? What possible reason would you not want to go to space?

What about the crash?

Thats irrelevant. Thats why they call them test pilots, he guffaws. They were testing the vehicle.

Holliday is a pilot himself of 40 years, though he made his money in the investment business. Along with the other founders, hes been through simulator training in Philadelphia in a giant centrifuge with a rotating bucket at the end that creates six G-force. Thats why they dont have 100 founders now. Some didnt like that. Some got airsick or burst into tears. He lets out another big laugh.

There are now said to be 89 founders left. Namira Salim, a Pakistani woman who lives in Monaco, with a family construction business in Dubai, is one of them. She says that space travel was her childhood dream. Its about taking a risk, she tells me, reaching for your dreams and doing the impossible to inspire others, and above all I think space flight is about making space for others. You know one could buy an expensive ticket and go to the international space station, but that doesnt necessarily mean youre going to open space travel for the common man. But by being part of such a programme as this youre ensuring thatthe price will come down due to our initial investment, and any common person who wants to go to space can one day go to space, and moreover it makes a peaceful contribution to Earth and to the different technologies we can use to make life better for humanity. So thats the motivation.

In this telling, space travel becomes a kind of altruistic act of generosity towards the common person and a step towards world peace. Thats quite a billing to live up to, especially at this stage. Of course its necessary for Virgin to make its future astronauts, especially the founders, feel special, as though they are travel pioneers and social innovators. But the reality is that they will fly 100km up from the Earths surface, hang around for a few minutes and come back down to the same place. In other words, it will be the best funfair ride the planet has to offer, but a funfair ride all the same.

Branson talks of point-to-point travel as a long-term aim, going into space as a means of getting from one part of the Earth to another at tremendous speed. He is also looking at setting up a habitat in space and then doing orbital flights. Thats something were working on for the future, he tells me.

He says the Spaceship Company is also exploring whether it could work to reroute a giant asteroid, should one come heading towards Earth. Thats the sort of thing wed need to get government money as well as private money to make happen.

In the meantime, another division of Virgin is making large numbers of small satellites. There are 4 billion people who dont have internet or Wi-Fi access, he says. This is the best way to get to them. Nothing will pull people out of poverty more than being connected.

Sir Richard Branson: self-proclaimed experts wrong about Virgin Galactic explosion – video

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/apr/10/virgin-galactic-richard-branson-interview

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