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Richard Branson’s ego, PR spin and a disaster waiting to happen

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.

Ever since my book about Branson was published in January, highlighting Virgin Galactic’s defects and the repeated failure to meet its deadlines, Branson has been on the defensive. He knew he was running out of time to launch his £700 million tourist rocket into space — and maintain credibility in the process.

Finally, he appeared on American TV eight weeks ago and pledged that he and his son Sam would be flying to the edge of space next March.

After that public declaration, he was committed to an accelerated process. The rocket would need several test flights before it was safe for Branson’s epic voyage, which would no doubt have taken place with all the razzmatazz associated with every Branson launch.