Why Virgin Galactic Couldn’t Beat Elon Musk to Space

Yet Virgin Galactic forges ahead. It plans to resume its rocket-powered flight test program in May, and its new chief executive, Michael Colglazier, the former head of Disney’s international theme park division, appears intent on dealing with past difficulties. It recently unveiled a spaceship that includes metallic fasteners that help prevent disbonding, and a stability augmentation system that automates an aspect of the flight and allows for a smoother ride.

While these changes could address some of Virgin Galactic’s problems, its DNA as a rocket plane company remains the same — a DNA that may present its greatest challenge, according to Luke Colby, a propulsion engineer who worked on Virgin Galactic’s spaceship program for nearly a decade and has also consulted for SpaceX and Blue Origin. “If you want a space vehicle to be fully reusable for airline-like traffic, it doesn’t have to look like an airplane,” Mr. Colby said. “It just has to function like one. And the physics really drive you toward a two-stage, vertical-take-off-and-vertical-landing rocket.”

He accepted that Virgin Galactic is likely to be remembered as one of the first “but not necessarily the most successful” of the first “new” space companies — a sobering admission. Its problem, he said, was that the company was driven by nostalgia for aeronautical flight. Blue Origin and SpaceX, on the other hand? They “have been driven by the physics of spaceflight,” he said.

Physics presented one challenge; human nature posed another. Put simply, Virgin Galactic has set a standard of perfection for itself that is noble but naïve. As one test pilot said, “Ninety-nine percent isn’t good enough.” An accident rate of less than 1 percent on an experimental rocket ship? Near impossible. Those are the hard realities of romance.

Perhaps that’s what made this company so fascinating to watch: its hope, in spite of the odds. I wanted to see it succeed not because I cared who won the private space race but because I admired the passion and optimism shared by the techs and engineers and test pilots on the project. We can only hope when we fear failure, and that was one thing algorithms couldn’t yet do: hope. The human factor had worked its magic on me.

My kids felt it, too. They still talk about watching that ship blast off and then later standing at the foot of the stage while Beth Moses, elated at what she’d just witnessed, struggled to find the words to articulate her experience, while her husband and her own children gazed up at her in awe.

That, she said, “is an indescribable ride.”