As I write this post late Sunday evening, information about the failed flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is still coming in. The spaceship, designed to carry passengers to the edge of outer space at $250,000 each, flew apart during a test flight, killing one of its two pilots and severely injuring the other.
At first attention focused on the ship's newfangle fuel which had never been used in flight. But the National Traffic Safety Board investigation revealed a different cause: The ship's "feather," a braking system designed to slow SpaceShipTwo during atmosphere reentry, deployed prematurely, causing the crash.
On-board recordings show Mike Alsbury, the pilot who died, unlocking the feather earlier in the flight than he should have, but that alone should not have caused it to deploy, so many questions remain about exactly what brought SpaceShipTwo down.
But it's not too early to look at some of the things all entrepreneurs can learn, both from the crash itself, and from the company's history so far:
1. Communication matters. A lot.
Virgin Galactic and its founder Richard Branson deserve high marks for the transparency with which they responded to the crash, at a time when many execs might have been tempted to refuse comment for fear that anything they said could be used against them in litigation. Branson even took to Twitter to thank supporters for their kind words. Perhaps as a result, the press and the public have been generally supportive of the company, a huge asset for a high-profile venture asking customers to pay the price of a house for a product no one has successfully provided yet.
2. Sometimes it's better to stick with what works.
Ten years ago, SpaceShipTwo's predecessor, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize, a challenge designed to both inspire and help fund tourist space flight. SpaceShipOne proved to have a highly successful design, but instead of sticking with it, Virgin Galactic moved on to a new and much larger design that could accommodate six passengers instead of two. That might have made sense from a business point of view, and it's certainly the sort of go-big-or-go-home move we've come to expect from Branson. But that doesn't mean it was the right decision.
"With 20/20 hindsight, that looks like a mistake," comments Michael Belfiore, author of Rocketeers, about the commercial space flight entrepreneurs, and an expert on space flight technology. "I'm thinking you have a prototype that does the job but needs some fixes," he says. (SpaceShipOne tended to roll during its flights.) "So you build one more and fix those problems and then qualify that for space flight. They could have been flying passengers a lot sooner."
3. Cooperation might be better than competition.
Scaled Composites, which built and tested both versions is located in Mojave, California. One of its neighbors is a company called XCOR that's proven itself adept at building rockets but lacks airplanes for launching them. (One innovation of both SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo is that they launch from a flying airplane which makes reaching outer space much easier.)
As of now, Virgin Galactic has airplanes from which to launch, but no rocket. "On one side of the airport you have airplane guys, and on the other side rocket guys," Belfiore says. "Maybe they should get together."
4. Be honest about risk with yourself and with everyone else.
Space travel is a risky undertaking. Earlier last week, an unmanned Antares rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station began malfunctioning and was deliberately destroyed in an explosion shortly after takeoff. The week's disasters serve to underscore how difficult and dangerous it is to leave the earth's atmosphere.
In fact, Peter Siebold, the injured pilot, gave up the chance to fly SpaceShipOne in one of its high-profile X-prize-winning flights. "He elected not to fly back then because he had just had a baby," Belfiore explains. With that child now 10, Siebold may have thought the time was right to get back in the game.
Branson and others at Virgin Galactic have often noted that space flight does come with risk. The company's employees and test pilots certainly are well aware of that. So are the 700 or so people who've signed up to be the first passengers--and they'll be reminded before they ever go into space.
He's also up front about the firewalls between his companies that protect the rest of the Virgin empire in case any one of them suffers economic downfall. Being honest about risk allows everyone, yourself included, to make informed decisions.
5. Have a long view.
By now Branson has spent around half a billion on this venture and still has no product to sell. Nevertheless, he has said that if the company can find what caused the crash and fix it, Virgin Galactic would continue with its plan to launch paying passengers to the edge of space. Despite the fact that in the 10 years since the X Prize competition, no company has gotten close to making suborbital space tourism a reality.
It makes sense, but only if you're thinking in the very long term. Space travel is a human aspiration--the desire to go beyond existing boundaries and see new territories is hard-wired into us. So there will always be plenty of customers ready to pay top dollar for a trip into space. Sooner or later, some company will get the kinks worked out and start offering space flights. Branson is determined for that company to be Virgin Galactic. Will he be able to stick it out despite Friday's accident and massive financial losses?