Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson may have been too aggressive when announcing timelines for when his company would begin ferrying passengers up into space, according to The Wall Street Journal. Branson's dates reportedly ran counter to what the company's technical advances suggested it would be able to pull off. That includes setting a start date of 2015 earlier this year, even as Virgin's engineers reportedly struggled to switch over to a new, more powerful type of fuel after discovering that its old fuel was not capable of bringing the ship up to space.
"Management’s attitude was simply we know best."
The Journal points to several other issues that have come up during the ship's development. That includes performance problems with the engine back in 2012 and 2013, strong vibrations in the ship that made instruments difficult to read, and fuel seepage into a wing. In particular, the Journal says that high-ranking managers are said to have not taken the ship's propulsion issues, which ultimately resulted in it switching fuel, seriously enough for some time, adding more delays. "Management’s attitude was simply we know best," a government official said to have knowledge of the project tells the Journal. Virgin's engineers reportedly felt that timelines were set without much regard to their input.
There isn't necessarily an implication that this led to safety issues — though that is something that the Federal Aviation Administration will certainly investigate as it looks into the crash — but it does suggest that even Branson's target date of next year was too soon. Virgin Galactic tells the Journal that while it has "internal milestones, such as schedule estimates and goals," its own staff and its contractors "are driven by safety and the completion of the flight test program before moving into commercial service." It reiterates that its schedules "never impacted flight safety."
It remains unclear what exactly went wrong to cause SpaceShipTwo to break up late last month. The FAA says that its investigation may take many more months, but it has already suggested that it may have been due to a mix of both pilot and mechanical error, both of which seem to have led the ship's wings to deploy early. Since the crash, Virgin Galactic has made it clear that its timeline will need to be pushed back. There's no way to know how long, but experts suspect it'll be at least several more years.