Friday, November 7, 2014
Time.com's Premature Criticism On the Heels of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Crash
As much as I tend to dislike many of the more recent popular slang expressions, "Haters Gonna Hate" does have a certain simple appeal in how it sums up the motives of some critics. It was this expression that instantly came to mind when I read the following article "Enough With Amateur-Hour Space Flight" at time.com. Before I get too far into this, I think it's worth mentioning that I do have an engineering degree (B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from University of Arizona) and have worked a number of years as a systems engineer on a space-based DoD (Department of Defense) project, so I do have some understanding of the underlying subject matter. Anyway, moving on to the article:
"It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the hard-working people of Virgin Galactic—Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company—after the loss of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a crash in the Mojave Desert at a little after 10 a.m. PDT Friday. And it’s completely impossible not to hurt for the families of the two pilots involved in the accident—one of whom was killed and the other of whom suffered serious injuries, according to local police.
But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?
Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, is at least in the business of flying aircraft, but the key part of that compound word is air. Space, as Branson surely knows, has none of that—and that changes the physics considerably."
Ok, my biggest problem with the article is that the author, Jeffrey Kluger, throws out these assertions "too much hubris... hucksterism... too little knowledge" but cites no examples or proof of such. The only thing he bases this on is the crash itself, which we do not know even close to the full story yet. Yet here is this guy demonizing Branson and Virgin Galactic the very same day as the crash. Can you say "premature"? (Or perhaps more accurately, "axe to grind"?)
Furthermore, he's equating Branson's business experience in running Virgin Airlines with the actual engineering decisions made with SpaceShipTwo. Now I don't doubt that Branson has some input on the direction of the project, but is he really directly involved in the serious engineering and design decisions that may have led to this accident? At most, he MIGHT be responsible for influencing the timeline of the test flights as part of any high-level management of the project on his part, but unless he's been ignoring the safety advice of his engineers in pushing the timeline (which there's no evidence for, at least yet) it is still jumping the gun to go on blaming him. One should at least wait for some preliminary investigation to be done before shooting one's mouth off with such allegations. And one more thing... the initial design and the concept originated with Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites, whose prior expertise and experience, before winning the X-prize, was primarily with aircraft design. Does that mean the "amateur" Rutan should have stayed home and played with his aircraft and left the X-Prize competition to the big boys?
The author continues:
"Once NASA announced that after the shuttle program ended in 2011 it would be outsourcing the low Earth orbit portion of its portfolio to the private sector, it was inevitable that there would be a scramble of companies vying for those contracts—and that’s by no means all bad. In some respects, space has always been privatized: North American Aviation, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing and others have all been major NASA contractors, and they are hardly government-owned operations."
What a crock! I've worked for two such contractors (again, in a DoD capacity), and let me tell you most of these contractors and the government are joined at the hip more than most people imagine. Northrop Grumman was, last I checked, 90% dependent on government contracts, and even moved its headquarters to the Washington DC area in recent years in large part to better position itself for further contracts (a smart move for them... not necessarily good for the taxpayer or keeping government spending down, but as a business decision it makes sense). Boeing is probably the one large aerospace/defense contractor that is least dependent on government contracts, but even they had $20 billion in sales coming from government contracts, nearly a quarter of their total revenue. They may not be government-owned operations in the strictest sense, but when anywhere between 25-90% of one's business is government contracting it is foolish to think they are independent operators. In reality they are tied intimately with government as well as to each other, so it's not really quite the free market arena that the author implies. It's only recently that companies like SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic to a lesser extent, have started to shake things up.
I point this out because the author highlights these companies as examples of private space operations, when in fact they are so tied to government (politically and financially) that most could not function without it. They have become a cartel of sorts, and one big reason space launches and operations are still so expensive is in part because they discourage true competition from the outside (cost-plus contracts also play a huge part in it, but that's an argument for a later time). While I don't have much of an opinion of Richard Branson one way or another, I do appreciate that his company is operating outside the old paradigm and pushing the envelope. If we left it to these big contractors the author seems to think are better alternatives, space technologies and exploration would continue to stagnate.
More from the article...
"All, however, are deeply experienced in the business of aeronautical and astronautical design, too. Elon Musk, founder of the upstart SpaceX is, so far, defying doubters, with a string of both commercial launches and resupply missions to the ISS and no major disasters. But SpaceX is a rare bird—and still a young one—and it has a while to go before it establishes its true space cred.
It’s Branson, however, who has always been the most troubling of the cosmic cowboys—selling not just himself on his fever dreams but his trusting customers. One of those would-be astronauts I met in the Mojave that day was a teenage girl, whose parents had put aside enough money to buy her the singular experience of a trip to space. They beamed at her courage as we spoke, and seemed thrilled about the ride she was soon to take. Those plans, presumably, are being rethought now."
Again, more trash-talking of Branson without any examples to back it up. Also interesting to see the back-handed compliment towards SpaceX, which by the way is only two years older than Virgin Galactic. Anyway, let's assume for a moment that Branson is the arrogant egotist that the author suggests.... how exactly is that supposed to have contributed to the disaster? Is it that the author thinks that arrogant egotists are incapable of running wildly successful businesses and endeavors (*cough* Apple! *cough*)? Seeing as the author doesn't highlight one or more specific decisions that could have played a part in the crash, we are left to assume that his problem with Branson and Virgin Galactic is simply in daring to try something new and challenging.
And that is where "haters gonna hate" comes into the picture. Some people don't like it when others try something new or dream big or draw outside the lines, and they will want to tear you down no matter what decisions you make or how you conduct yourself. Some may do it because seeing someone take a risk to dream big highlights their own insecurities and their failure to chase their own dreams, whereas others may do it to get some attention or even to pursue some grudge. Ultimately the important thing is to ignore these people, because not only is their criticism the unhelpful kind, but they will never be happy until you stop trying and give up. Most of them are unhappy, full of regrets, and have resigned themselves to living less than a full life, and their only fleeting moments of joy are in spreading their misery to others and keeping others from achieving more than themselves.
So I say to Richard Branson, find what mistakes were made and have your people keep trying until you succeed. Continue to push the envelope. It is an inherently risky endeavor, and accidents can and will happen to the best of them no matter how many precautions and safety measures are in place. You can only minimize risk, not eliminate it altogether. Even NASA and the big aerospace companies like Boeing that the author seems to think are the end-all-be-all of the space industry have had their share of recent accidents, and that is despite their incredibly deep pockets and/or extensive engineering resources at their disposal. And lastly, by all means don't place too much stock in criticism on engineering or space operations and design from a guy whose education and background is in political science and law. Until I see solid evidence that proves critical, avoidable mistakes were made, I'm more inclined to back a proven entrepreneur and business owner, no matter how flamboyant or egotistical he might be, than a lawyer working in the mainstream media making unsubstantiated claims of recklessness.