“EGO, PR SPIN AND A DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN” is how the Daily Mail headlined the feelings of many over the fourth person to be killed in Sir Richard Branson’s race, looking increasingly insane and pointless, for Virgin Galactic to be the first to offer very expensive space tourism to the rich.

Following the deaths of three engineers in 2007 when a rocket engine exploded, Branson’s test pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed and his co-pilot badly injured when SpaceShipTwo broke up and crashed on a test flight on October 31. The cause of the crash may not be known for 12 months, but what is emerging are claims that Virgin Galactic have had, and ignored multiple warnings about the dangers.

After the crash Branson’s gift for PR seemed to have deserted him when he described the tragedy in terms of the “horrid setback” to his plans and said that “Space is hard, but worth it”, a sentiment possibly questioned by the families of the four who have died so far. Branson also said he had “never met” Mr Alsbury, a claim he later amended by saying that he actually had met him a year before, after a video emerged of him shaking hands with Alsbury and posing for photographs last year. Branson then went on to describe Alsbury as a “dear friend and inspiring colleague” (who he had never met?).

It remains to be seen whether or not the tragedies will kill off space tourism, like the R101 disaster in 1930 killed off airships, and the crash of Air France 4500 in 2000 killed off Concorde. Branson has an uphill struggle to convince us all that space tourism really is worth the deaths, and that his Spacecrafts won’t be flying coffins for rich Trekkies paying for the privilege.

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