A tragic setback

SS2EveA friend of your columnist’s was once standing in line to check in for a Virgin Airlines flight at LAX Airport when she noticed Richard Branson standing behind her. They struck up a conversation. He upgraded her to first class so they could keep talking on the flight. She has been a loyal customer ever since. It was a stunt, of course. The Chairman of an airline does not have to stand in line to check in. But it was a stunt that only Branson could have pulled off. The CEO of American or Delta could stand in line at check in and not be recognized by a single customer – and perhaps not even by the airline’s own staff. 

By coincidence, earlier on the day of the Virgin Galactic crash you columnists was discussing a Virgin trains crash with students on a crisis management course. The case study had been selected by the students. Branson rapidly arrived on the scene. Visibly emotional he first expressed his care and concern for those injured and moved on to deliver key messages. After 25 years in the transport business this was the first time any of his companies had been involved in a crash. There would be an inquiry. Virgin would cooperate with the authorities and ensure that all the findings were published. He was the only person on site not wearing a safety helmet or high visibility jacket. The trademark hair blew in the wind. Fifteen years on it remains an object lesson in crisis management. And hours after we had been absorbing that lesson he was in flight to California to, once again, school the business world in how these things should be done. 

This time key messages addressed the fact that there are inherent safety risks in space exploration, that the people involved all know that, and believe that pushing the boundaries of knowledge is worth it. One minor slip. He said safety is the first priority. It is not. Exploration and discovery are the first priorities. If safety was the first priority there would be no space program, and no-one would have sailed on the Mayflower either. 

Space travel is, finally, making the move from government control to the private sector. Jeffrey Kluger in Time magazine risibly calls this “amateur hour” and calls for a halt. It is actually a move away from amateurs towards the professionals who will make space pay. Space is no longer a hobby to be undertaken when there is political will and dropped when the glamour wears off. It is in the hands of hard-headed investors who will bring tourism, the recovery of natural resources and, ultimately, colonization, to space. The best thing the government could do is get out of the way, and sell NASA’s assets to the highest bidder.

And there will be bidders. Some are the romantic geeks of Silicon Valley. But others, like Branson, have been in the transport business for four decades. This is the beginning of something very big. It is all there in the name of Branson’s business: Virgin Galactic. There will be no exploration outside this solar system in Branson’s lifetime or that of his children. If he means to cross the galaxy – let alone explore another one – that is project for future centuries, or even millennia. But the dream is there now.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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