Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Thirty-nine days before Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo disintegrated over the Mojave Desert, Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson sat in the planetarium of the American Museum of Natural History in New York with about 250 people invited to a "Virgin Disrupters" conference. The topic: The Future of Travel.

Branson gave a progress report on his plans to bring tourists into outer space. "It is hard," he said. "For the last couple of months, we've been testing rockets every 10 days. Everything's going exactly according to plan now."

In my notes, I indicated that he emphasized the word "now."

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, who had previously been chief of staff at NASA, said the company was in its final phase of test flights this fall. "I'm hoping for a Christmas surprise for Richard," he said, adding that soon after testing is successfully completed, commercial customers would go up.

Earlier in the evening, Whitesides had said, with pride, that Virgin Galactic was doing something never done before: creating a commercial "spaceline company."

"This is not just ambitious, audacious and hard," he said. "It is crucial to the future of humanity."

Again, that word "hard."

Initial inspiration, Branson said, came from frustration. "We thought NASA would build for all of us. In the end, I thought screw it, let's find some brilliant engineers and do it. And if George is correct, we're nearly there."

Someone in the audience asked whether the average person could withstand the tremendous G-forces that space travel entails.

"Remarkably, we think 98% of people will be fine flying with us," Branson said. "It's a great misconception that you need to be an incredible athlete, like professional astronauts. The reality is that almost anyone can do it, and we have the science to prove it. You'll see grandmothers and grandfathers flying into space."

Branson's daughter Holly had, a month earlier, announced her pregnancy on the Virgin website, and Branson had given interviews saying how excited he was at the thought of being a grandfather. He closed the Disrupters discussion by turning to Whitesides and saying, "And I'm going to be a great-grandfather before I [get into space] if you don't hurry up."

• • •

The tragedy of the SpaceShipTwo accident is manyfold: First and foremost, the loss of human life. The setback for a company that seemed on the brink of success, following years of delays. And a disheartening turn in an initiative that inspires millions beyond the 700 people who actually put down a $200,000 or $250,000 deposit to reserve a seat to outer space.

When Travel Weekly recently published a small survey of people's "bucket list" trips, four people, including me, chose space as their dream destination.

At the Disrupters conference, Whitesides spoke for many of us when he commented on how strange it was that with the exception of the Concorde era, we've essentially been traveling at the same air speed for 50 years.

"We don't have to do things incrementally, and we don't have to do things as we have in the past," he said. "We're humans, and we control our built environment. SpaceShipTwo says we don't have to accept the status quo. Space is not only important for the future of transport, but for the future of imagination. We have to break out of paradigms we've been stuck in for decades."

He said he believed that Virgin Galactic would change the world by providing the opportunity for people to look at the planet from the outside and shift their perspective. "From space, you can see the fragility of the planet and that we're all really on the same spaceship. [Virgin] astronauts will be able to share this."

He disagreed with the characterization of Virgin Galactic as just a toy for elites. The company, he said, was a "consumer champion" and would democratize space.

The adventurer Bertrand Piccard, the first man to circle the world nonstop in a balloon and who hopes to fly around the world in a solar-powered plane, also spoke, and spoke passionately, about space travel serving a larger need for humanity.

"The moon landing was crucial in our history," he said. "Today, we have billions of people watching football games. We need billions to watch something related to the future, to innovation."

• • •

In 2003, I sat on a World Travel and Tourism Council panel with astronaut David Scott, who had flown one Gemini and two Apollo missions (including a moon walk), and Eric Anderson, then CEO of Space Adventures, which arranged flights to Russia's MIR space station for $20 million.

Scott was incensed by what he saw as the exploitation of space travel by the wealthy, and he scoffed at the idea of private companies developing commercial spacecraft.

When Anderson pointed out that only eight years had elapsed from the time of the first manned space flight to the first moon walk, Scott retorted, "Yes, and we had 400,000 people working on it, and we spent $40 billion." Private concerns, he said, "could never even pay the service on the debt."

Scott and I stayed in touch after the panel and became friends. He ultimately softened his stance on space tourism, becoming interested in projects such as Virgin Galactic.

After I heard about the SpaceShipTwo accident, I recalled something Scott had said on the panel, and I dug out my notes to make sure I had the quote right: "We overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term but underestimate what can be accomplished in the long term."

Those are words Branson and Whitesides should take to heart. It must seem hard to imagine now, but eventually we'll again see the bravado on display by Branson, 39 days before.

Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter

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