Review: Branson: Behind the Mask
by Jeff Foust
|Bower writes that Branson visited Mojave in November 2012 and pressed Scaled’s then president, Doug Shane, about delays and problems with the hybrid engine’s development. The two privately agreed “to develop an alternative motor powered by conventional fuel.”|
Those continued delays, though, have created a number of skeptics who doubt those pronouncements—or even if SpaceShipTwo will ever make it in space at all in anything like its current form. They point to rumored ongoing problems with the development of the vehicle’s hybrid rocket motors as perhaps keeping the vehicle from ever achieving spaceflight and beginning commercial flights. They point to, among other things, a drawn-out flight test program: since SpaceShipTwo’s initial powered flight in late April 2013, the vehicle has performed only two more powered flights, most recently early last month, with engine burns only a few seconds longer than that initial flight. (Virgin officials counter that the engine development is going well, releasing in late December video of a full-duration static test of SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid motor.)
Skeptics of Virgin Galactic will find plenty of fodder for their arguments in Branson: Behind the Mask, a book by investigative journalist Tom Bower published last month in the UK. (The book is not yet published in the US, although copies are for sale through third-party sellers on sites like Amazon and eBay.) Bower, who wrote an earlier biography of Branson in 2000, provides a critical examination of Virgin Galactic and Branson’s other business—airlines, trains, banking, green energy, and more—in the book, all with the thesis that Branson is more showman than businessman, detached from his various ventures and making poor decisions about them, all while protecting both his image and his bank account.
Bower starts the book with Virgin Galactic’s worst day: July 26, 2007, when an explosion occurred during a nitrous oxide “cold flow” test of SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine, killing three Scaled Composites workers. In that and subsequent chapters, he argues that a “scientifically uneducated” investigator from a state regulatory agency, CalOSHA, sent to study the accident was misdirected by Scaled engineers he interviewed. He concluded that the explosion was caused by contamination in the solid fuel from routine handling; Scaled received a modest fine from CalOSHA but no other civil or criminal penalties. Later analysis, Bower writes, was that a composite liner in the tank had decomposed, contaminating the nitrous oxide and causing the explosion—a design flaw, not a handling accident.
Bower returns to Virgin Galactic throughout the book, updating the reader on the company’s various milestones and delays while weaving several other tales about dysfunction in Virgin’s other lines of business. Later in the book, Bower writes that Branson visited Mojave in November 2012 and pressed Scaled’s then president, Doug Shane, about delays and problems with the hybrid engine’s development. The two privately agreed “to develop an alternative motor powered by conventional fuel,” he writes. Virgin is developing—and has recently tested—liquid-propellant engines, but those engines are for the company’s LauncherOne small satellite launcher, which was announced in July 2012, prior to the November 2012 meeting in Bower’s book.
Those are strong claims, although not necessarily surprising for some: there’s long been rumors about performance issues with the hybrid engine that may be delaying SpaceShipTwo’s test program, which the book mentions. However, how accurate are these accounts? Bower includes a “Notes and Sources” section at the end of the book, but states that he heavily relied on interviews with sources who asked not to be named, “and, on lawyers’ advice, it was considered best not to name the others.” He does list the “public domain” (i.e., previously published) sources for his book, but they do not contain the more sensational and newsworthy—but also difficult to verify—claims in his book.
One way to judge the veracity of the book’s unsourced claims is to examine how accurate the book is on topics that can be verified. Unfortunately, in many cases that approach does not inspire confidence in Bower. In the book’s opening chapter (as well as an excerpt that appeared in the Sunday Times of London just before the book’s publication last month), Bower writes that Branson made the call to propose a deal with Scaled Composites after SpaceShipOne made the first of its two prize-winning flights in late September of 2004. In fact, the deal was announced just before that flight, with Branson and Burt Rutan appearing together in London. Bower also writes that when the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum agreed to accept SpaceShipOne, it meant that “thousands of visitorswould gaze at the craft’s gleaming shell with the iconic logo—‘Virgin Galactic’—emblazoned on the tail fin.” Bower doesn’t note that when the museum added SpaceShipOne to its collection a year after winning the Ansari X PRIZE, Scaled had “restored” the vehicle to its appearance from its first suborbital spaceflight in June 2004, without logos of Virgin Galactic on it.
|One way to judge the veracity of the book’s unsourced claims is to examine how accurate the book is on topics that can be verified. Unfortunately, in many cases that approach does not inspire confidence in Bower.|
A close reading of the book reveals a number of errors ranging from minor to significant. Dates, and cause-and-effect relationships, are frequently an issue for Bower. For example, when comparing Virgin Galactic with SpaceX, he writes that after the latter successfully flew a Dragon spacecraft into orbit in December 2010, it “triggered [Elon] Musk’s negotiations with NASA for a $1.6 billion contract to shuttle twelve payloads to the International Space Station.” SpaceX won that contract in December 2008, almost exactly two years before that flight. (Bower also describes SpaceX as Virgin’s “biggest competitor,” even though they are serving different markets.) Elsewhere in the book, Bower appears to conflate two separate ceremonies at New Mexico’s Spaceport America—the dedication of the spaceport’s runway in October 2010 and the dedication of the main terminal building one year later—into a single event.
Bower is not a space expert: his background is writing often-critical biographies of major British figures, from Robert Maxwell to Gordon Brown to Simon Cowell. That may explain some of the errors in the book, like when he claims that a vehicle has to fly at seven times the speed of sound to reach orbit (it’s actually about Mach 25.) Bower writes near the end of the book that, in July of last year, the FAA issued an order “waiving the requirements on Scaled to comply with laws to shield people from hazards caused by the rocket.” The waiver that Bower cites, published in the Federal Register, covers an issue with Scaled’s experimental permit for SpaceShipTwo test flights, and states that it “will not jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, and national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.”
Other errors are simply hard to understand. Bower writes, “To divert attention from the delays, he [Branson] approved a conference in Palo Alto, California, on 26 February 2012 focusing on the ‘Next Generation of Suborbital Researchers’.” While Virgin Galactic did participate in that conference, it was not organized by Virgin, nor was it the first such conference: it was preceded by similar conferences in 2010 and 2011 (see “Has suborbital’s time finally arrived?” The Space Review, March 5, 2012). What Bower makes sound like a diversionary tactic was an event organized independently of the company and planned long in advance.
Given these and other errors in the book based on information that’s publicly available and easy to fact-check, it’s difficult to accept the claims in the book that are based on unidentified, private sources that can’t be easily verified. It’s clear that the development of SpaceShipTwo has taken far longer than almost anyone expected, with serious technical problems, the full extent of which may not be currently known outside the companies involved. That effort can, and hopefully one day will, make for a compelling book about Virgin Galactic’s trials and tribulations. However, Branson: Behind the Mask isn’t that book.