In the immediate wake of the tragic test flight in October that claimed the life of a Virgin Galactic pilot, Richard Branson says he had serious doubts about moving ahead with his commercial space tourism venture.
"I found myself questioning seriously for the first time, whether in fact it was right to be backing the development of something that could result in such tragic circumstances," he shared in a recent blog post. "In short – was Virgin Galactic and everything it has stood for and dreamt of achieving, really worth it?"
Pilots Pete Siebold and Michael Alsbury were performing a test flight of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane on October 31, when the aircraft broke up only 11 seconds into its ascent. Alsbury was killed, but Siebold miraculously parachuted to safety. According to an early NTSB investigation, the crash may have been due to pilot error, as cockpit video showed Alsbury prematurely pulled a lever that unlocked SpaceShipTwo's wing-feathering brake system; an action that likely led to the aircraft's destruction.
Branson, 64, explained how the reception he received upon landing at Spaceport America in the aftermath of the crash made his decision to continue his dream all the more easier. All members of the Virgin Galactic family — from the engineers to the pilots — were adamant about moving forward.
"I heard the same, heartfelt message at the incredibly moving memorial service for Mike Alsbury a week later and I heard and saw it in the thousands of messages that poured into my office from all around the world – and in one case, even beyond the world, from the astronauts on the International Space Station," he wrote. "I also heard, and saw, and felt it, from our Future Astronauts in an outpouring of support and solidarity which was at once humbling and uplifting.
"When this story is told in years to come, I believe alongside the bravery of Mike and the incredible tale of Pete’s survival, will stand the story of the commitment, loyalty and passion of the world’s first private astronauts," he added.
Originally slated to begin commercial operations later this year for the more than 700 customers already signed up, Virgin Galactic will now await the conclusions of the NTSB investigation before proceeding further. In the meantime, the company has another SpaceShipTwo rocket plane slated to begin test flights this spring — one of five the company eventually hopes to have in its fleet of aircraft.
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