At his SpacePort in New Mexico, where he is preparing to ride to the edge of space, this weekend, beating another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, by just over a week, Sir Richard Branson shared an exclusive look behind the scenes, including the spaceship he and five others will be flying in. NBC’s Tom Costello reports for TODAY from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.
Everyone who sees SpaceShipTwo and goes crazy over it like Tom Costello does in this report. The vehicle is, as Branson says in the video, what you imagine a spaceship should look like. He has on multiple occasions accurately referred to it as “sexy”. Personally, it was one of the few things in Mojave that reminded me I am living in the 21st century.
But, looks can be deceiving. It’s a complex vehicle that requires two pilots to fly. The nitrous oxide SpaceShipTwo uses is a monopropellant, meaning it can explode on its own. It did once, claiming three the lives of three engineers working on the engine in an accident that NBC seems to have forgotten about. And the ship needs to be reconfigured for reentry using twin tail booms known as the feather. Premature unlocking of the system caused a fourth fatality and destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo.
Those specific issues have been addressed. But, the ship is still risky to fly on; it is rocket science. And there are no mandatory safety regulations to protect anyone on board. The technology is very much on the edge.
It’s kind of disturbing to see a reporter getting all excited and asking Branson when he can fly on it. He got seduced by the look of the vehicle and the excitement of the flight without fully understanding the risks or conveying them to viewers.
Costello was also talking to a guy who is a major risk taker. Branson included an appendix in his latest autobiography that chronicles 75 near-death experiences he has had in his life. The man thrives on facing danger and the enormous public attention his actions generate.
I don’t know if SpaceShipTwo flight is the riskiest thing he has ever done, but it’s pretty high up on the list. And this upcoming flight on Sunday is a test. SpaceShipTwo is still in a test flight program that has lasted 11 years.