The fatal crash of the Virgin Galactic spaceship on October 31 has already taught the world a few invaluable lessons about the dangers inherent in Richard Branson's ambitious vision of commerical space travel. Some of those dangers are unavoidable, but others come with significant foreshadowing. Focusing on the latter, a report in The Wall Street Journal examines the technical issues that plagued the SpaceFlightTwo project throughout its development and questions whether Branson's leadership style played a role in the accident.
The Virgin Galactic engineering team spent two years fixing these issues, as flight tests kept getting postponed. As the delays piled up, Branson, the Virgin founder who spent roughly a half a billion dollars on the project, pushed for unrealistic deadlines that undermined the severity of the technical challenges plaguing the mission.
According to Michael Moses, head of operations for Virgin Galactic, Branson's grand projections created tension with the engineering team struggling to patch up the non-stop technical issues. Branson became the "impatient customer, saying I want to fly by Christmas," Moses told the Journal. The founder's aggressive enthusiasm prompted the National Transportation Safety Board reviewing the accident to question whether pressure was placed on the pilots, the technical experts and the flight test schedule.
The Journal's unnamed source, a senior engineer who worked on SpaceShipTwo, revealed that the Virgin Galactic higher-ups created schedules and deadlines without input from the engineering team. In a company statement, Virgin Galactic said that its internal schedules were always consistent with established safety protocol.
Underlying all this is the question of how well Branson understood the state of the project and the challenges facings its engineers. Overseeing an empire that is certainly global if not quite galactic, Branson has had to master the art of delegation in order to be able to run his business empire.
"In some ways it's easier today for me to oversee a few hundred companies than it was when I was hands-on running the business myself," Branson told Inc. President and Editor-in-Chief Eric Schurenberg back in April 2013. "Learning the art of delegation is absolutely key... That way, you're going to be able to see the bigger picture and think of new areas to go into."
This mentality certainly helped Branson focus on the ambitious feat of trying to bring space travel to the masses. But being removed from the day-to-day, especially when it involves a complicated project such as launching a spacecraft, Branson might have missed important information coming from different Virgin Galactic engineers, technical experts and contractors. If anything, he could have felt the frustration that his public pronouncements were causing on his team and realized that his ambitious projections were hindering, rather than propelling, the launch of SpaceShipTwo.
Branson is the smiling face of the Virgin brand. As much impresario as executive, it's part of his job description to present the most optimistic outlook possible for the company's high-profile projects. But in the case of SpaceShipTwo, that imperative ran contrary to the caution and conservatism that make for effective risk management.
Ultimately, no matter how many delegates stand between him and the moon, Virgin's triumphs and tragedies will all get linked back to Branson.
Virgin Galactic announced that it will resume flight tests of a second SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in 2015.