Virgin Galactic shows the world that safety is everything in adventure tourism
When the Titan submersible imploded in June, killing its CEO and four passengers near the Titanic wreckage, I wondered if it would deal a blow to adventure tourism, namely Virgin Galactic and its flights from New Mexico’s Spaceport America.
It didn’t. Virgin’s VSS Unity flew on August 10 with its first three paying tourists and has many more lined up.
The difference in the two companies and their preparation is night and day. It’s a lesson to anybody who plans to shepherd tourists on risky excursions.
From news coverage we now know that the Titan was not just unsafe but a disaster waiting to happen. Experts warned for years – some of them telling CEO Stockton Rush to his face – that his submersible had design flaws. He dismissed them all and fired his own director of marine operations when he reported serious defects.
Now consider Virgin Galactic.
CEO Richard Branson in 2005 told New Mexico, if you build it we will come. Under Gov. Bill Richardson, taxpayers spent $225 million to build Spaceport America in southern New Mexico. Branson optimistically predicted the company’s flights would begin in 2011, but the timetable stretched from one year to the next because it was new technology, and nobody really knew how long it would take. Virgin’s executives cautioned again and again that they wouldn’t fly passengers to the edge of space until it was safe.
The company was testing and retesting the SpaceShipTwo rocket in Mojave, Calif. The repeated delays stoked skepticism about the project’s viability. “The technology has its own timeline,” an officer told the Albuquerque Journal.
Meanwhile, the Legislature debated whether to protect Virgin’s suppliers from liability in event of an accident, which added to the uncertainty. There were disputes over rent. Virgin needed FAA approvals. Spaceport directors came and went. Lawmakers debated funding.
On Oct. 31, 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight; one pilot died and another was seriously injured. It was devastating to Virgin Galactic employees and to the business. It took three years to manufacture another spaceship and resume test flights. Not until 2019 did Virgin move space vehicles and employees to Spaceport America.
Even then the pace remained deliberate. In May 2021 VSS Unity successfully flew into space from the spaceport. Two months later it soared into suborbit with Branson and Virgin Galactic crew members on board.
They still weren’t finished. Virgin improved the spaceships’ durability for repeated use. This summer three Italians conducted on-board experiments during a successful flight.
And finally, just weeks ago, the first bona fide tourists got the thrill of their lives when Virgin Galactic delivered on its promise of space flight for everybody.
It was a historic – and flawless – event. Throughout its painstaking development of the program and the spacecraft, Virgin has been stubbornly consistent in keeping safety its first priority, even when delays hurt its credibility with legislators and the public.
As I was starting this column, federal investigators reported that a 2021 balloon crash was the result of pilot error and that pilot Nick Meleski had used cannabis within hours of the mishap and also had cocaine in his system. Meleski, an experienced balloon pilot, flew into power lines. Two Albuquerque couples and Meleski died.
In the Titan and balloon calamities, Stockton Rush and Nick Meleski had one thing in common – hubris. Rush would hear no criticism of his submersible. He and four people died. Meleski had notched so many balloon flights, maybe he didn’t think a little weed would impair him. He and four people died.
Richard Branson is usually described as an eccentric billionaire. That may be true, but he’s no fool. He understands that without utmost attention to safety there is nothing.
@ 2023 NEW MEXICO NEWS SERVICES
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