A.P. Looks at Virgin Galactic’s Lowered Profile

Few space stories have captured the public’s imagination (and the press’ attention) more than the efforts of Virgin Galactic to bring the nascent space tourism business to the (well-heeled) masses via the Burt Rutan-designed SpaceShipTwo.


While the attention is surely a boon to Virgin Galactic (and probably a source of resentment for its competitors), it can be problematic when things go wrong, as when an explosion at the factory of Scaled Composites (which made the first private trip into space with SpaceShipOne) killed three people in July during testing of a propellant system.

Today, the Associated Press looks at how the accident has impacted Virgin Galactic’s public profile: 

The accident at the remote site run by famed aerospace designer Burt Rutan rattled the fledgling space tourism industry, which has enjoyed a honeymoon period since 2004 when Rutan launched SpaceShipOne, the first private manned rocket into space.

It also offered insight into how two pioneering companies that forged an unlikely partnership two years ago to fly civilians to space reacted to the tragedy. In a reversal of roles, Richard Branson’s publicity-seeking Virgin Galactic kept a low profile while its usually silent partner, Rutan’s Scaled Composites LLC, took to the Internet to mourn its workers.

Some space experts believe Virgin Galactic is following the right strategy because the accident was of an industrial nature and not directly related to spaceflight. But eventually customers and the public will demand answers, they say.

While Virgin Galactic kept a low public profile after the accident, the company did reach out privately to reassure its "founding" customers, who have already paid $200,000 to be the first to go up in SpaceShipTwo, according to the AP report.

It was Virgin Galactic’s partner, Scaled Composites, that was forced into the limelight following the accident:

Before the accident, hardly anything was known about Scaled’s progress on its suborbital spaceship program. Afterward, Rutan acknowledged for the first time the company was testing a propellent system for SpaceShipTwo, the successor to SpaceShipOne. Many details about the program are still unknown, including how far along Scaled is….

Scaled has since shed some of its stoic image. Its technical Web site was transformed into a virtual shrine for the three rocket workers killed in the line of duty. It set up a memorial fund, posted poignant online remembrances and gave updates on funeral arrangements and conditions of the injured, who are expected to survive.

Scaled also sought outside experts to determine what went wrong and vowed to share lessons learned with the industry to prevent another accident.

"Burt is taking it hard because it’s the first time he’s lost people. There is a feeling of shock that some of his friends died," said space business consultant Thomas Matula.

The Personal Spaceflight Federation, made up of more than a dozen private space companies, has vowed to plow ahead despite the tragedy in Mojave, according to the article.