But the undertaking was proving far more difficult than Branson anticipated. An accidental explosion in 2007 killed three engineers. A mid-air accident in 2014 destroyed the ship and killed a test pilot, forcing Virgin Galactic to more or less start over. I approached the company shortly after the accident to ask if I could embed with them and write a story about their space programme for the New Yorker. I worked on the story for four years. After it came out, in August 2018, I spent another two years reporting and writing a book about the test pilots who fly Branson’s spaceship. Amid the tragedies and setbacks, Branson remained optimistic of the prospect of imminent success. In 2004: “It is envisaged that Virgin Galactic will open for business by the beginning of 2005 and, subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals, begin operating flights from 2007.” Then, in 2009: “I’m very confident that we should be able to meet 2011.” Later, in 2017: “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.” Meanwhile, other private space companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, were making progress. Branson confessed that had he known in 2004 what he knew now, “I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the project… We simply couldn’t afford it.”
His record on delivering promises has made him a polarising figure. Branson has appeared on lists of both hucksters and heroes. One poll ranked him second among people whom British children should emulate; Jesus Christ came third. His biographer describes him as “a card player with a weak hand who plays to strength,” but also a “self-made and self-deprecating man whose flamboyance endears him to aspiring tycoons, who snap up his books and flock to his lectures to glean the secrets of fortune-hunting.” But all of that was in the past; the turmoil and hardship would hopefully make the triumph all that much sweeter. For he and I knew as we headed into the desert that tomorrow could finally be the day that Virgin Galactic went to space.
Read more of this story at Slashdot.