TIME space

What Richard Branson Can Learn From the Virgin Galactic Tragedy

Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif.
Broken dream: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo sits in a desert field on Nov. 2, 2014 north of Mojave, Calif. Sandy Huffaker—Getty Images

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Every disaster can be equal parts tragedy and travesty. Both are avoidable.

Am I the first person to discover that the ecosystem of Twitter can be a little bit toxic? Those 140 characters, it seems, don’t always lend themselves to nuanced and reasoned discussion, and so the discussion that does take place is often—how best to put this?—discourteous.

All right, maybe that’s not news to anyone. But I’ve discovered that ugly truth anew in the past few days, in the wake of my Oct. 31 piece arguing that that day’s crash of Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo—which took the life of test pilot Michael Alsbury, a 39-year-old married father of two—could be laid directly at the feet of Branson himself. I accused Branson of too much hucksterism and too much hubris. I meant what I said, and I stand by it.

Many of the tweets that opinion elicited are best left in the Twitter muck, particularly this thoughtful take, and this one and this one, which would be so much better if the author had taken the time to spell-check schmuck. There was, too, a response from Chris Sacca, a deservedly well-regarded investor in Uber, Kickstarter, Instagram and more and a man with an impressive 1.49 million Twitter followers: “Brave pioneer died conducting research. Go f*ck yourself, Time.” (Asterisk not provided in original.)

O.K., let’s all take a deep breath and try to collect ourselves. All disasters can be equal parts tragedy and travesty if we don’t keep our heads about us, but that doesn’t mean they have to remain that way. I’m happy to concede that my phrasing was provocative, and I indeed conceded it on CBS This Morning the day after the crash. But that doesn’t mean it was misplaced. Let’s start with that hubris thing.

As I mentioned in my earlier piece, I attended the Mojave Desert jamboree that Virgin Galactic threw last year for a few hundred of its paying passengers and got a look at SpaceShipTwo up close. What struck me the most was a bit of company artwork stenciled on the fuselage of the ship, as well as on all of the press materials distributed that day and even on the very lanyards that held the credentials of all of the attendees.

It was a series of silhouettes that represented a sort of walking tour of the key mile markers of human spaceflight. First was an Icarus-looking figure with large feathered wings; next came the Wright Brothers’ plane, then what appeared to be Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Those were followed by an X-1 (the first plane to break the sound barrier), a 747, the Apollo lunar module, and then SpaceShipOne (the forerunner of SpaceShipTwo, and the first private craft to achieve suborbital flight). Finally came SpaceShipTwo itself, mated to its larger carrier craft.

So of the eight greatest pivot points in the long history of human aviation, Branson claims a connection to two—one of which (SpaceShipTwo) has never even done the thing that it was built to do, which is to get to space. Yes, logos are just semiotics—but semiotics count, especially when they seem to define the company’s culture.

As recently as Sept. 27, according to Mail Online, Branson was predicting that success for SpaceShipTwo was just months away, despite the fact that the company has been in operation since 2004 and has continually missed such self-imposed deadlines; had just switched from a rubber-based to a plastic-based fuel that had not even been tested in flight until last week; and still holds only an experimental—not operational—permit from the FAA. But never mind.

“I would very much hope that before Christmas, Virgin Galactic has visited space,” Branson told Mail Online. “And then we’ll move the whole program to New Mexico where myself and my son will be the first people to go up from the Spaceport in the spring of next year.”

These are less the words of a pioneer than those of an entrepreneur who has to keep the enthusiasm around his enterprise high, partly because he’s answerable to a lot of other people with a lot of money on the line: There is, for example, the $218.5 million the taxpayers of New Mexico have ponied up to build that spaceport near the appropriately named town of Truth or Consequences. There’s the estimated $300 million that’s been poured into Virgin Galactic by the Abu Dhabi–based firm Aabar Investments. And most troubling of all, there are the $20,000 deposits Virgin’s estimated 800 customers have put down to hold their reservations for their eventual flight.

This is where Branson dramatically parts company with all of the legends his acolytes in the Twitterverse and elsewhere like to invoke—especially the Wright brothers. Orville and Wilbur, it’s worth remembering, risked only their own hides on their first flights—and they never, ever presumed to take their highly experimental plane commercial no matter how confident they were in its reliability.

What’s more, they were genuinely attempting to accomplish something that had never been done before—powered flight—as opposed to simply coming up with a new way to fly a manned suborbital mission that was first checked off humanity’s bucket list on May 5, 1961, when Alan Shepard pulled it off. And if you’re going to make the argument that Branson is trying to democratize (the go-to word) spaceflight, making it available to everyone as opposed to just the elite, I would argue that you have to be pretty darned elite to be able to plunk down $250,000 for a 15-minute vacation—which factors out to a cool $16,666 per minute.

Second to the Wrights when it comes to easy and inapt comparisons are the heroes of NASA’s early days, who—argue the enthusiasts—lost plenty of pilots themselves and never would have gotten anywhere if they hadn’t taken bold risks. “You’ve read The Right Stuff, right?”@Kazanjy challenged me in a tweet. Yes, @Kazanjy, I have. And more relevant to our conversation, I wrote Apollo 13. I’ve also reported and written extensively about multiple space disasters over the years, including the loss of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia and the Mir space station accident in 1997.

The Challenger explosion in particular, as history has shown, was the direct result of the same get-it-done, fly-it-now, meet-the-deadline urgency the Virgin Galactic brass are applying to the SpaceShipTwo engineers. This doesn’t mean Branson has been cavalier with the lives of his pilots any more than NASA was, or that he isn’t genuinely heartbroken at the loss of one of them. It does mean that both he and the space agency of the Challenger era were pushing their staffs to keep unrealistic promises they themselves had made: a workable vehicle that could go commercial as soon as spring, in Branson’s case; and a shuttle that could fly payloads cheaply with a quick turnaround time, in NASA’s case. Something similar was true of the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that cost the lives of three astronauts in 1967, as NASA raced to meet the deadline President Kennedy set of having Americans on the moon by 1970.

What Apollo 13 showed was that even when the pressure is off—when the moon race is won and the hardware has been proven and you can finally begin flying missions that are less about just getting home in one piece and more about doing some actual science—you still can’t take anything for granted.

The reason the Apollo 13 astronauts, who had exhaustively prepared for every conceivable thing that could go wrong with their spacecraft, never rehearsed for the one that did, was that no one ever conceived of a quadruple failure of multiply redundant hardware. And if anyone did conceive of it, there was no point in preparing for it, because it would be like preparing for what to do if you drive your car over a cliff. You do nothing; you just die.

The Apollo 13 crew survived, but in the case of Virgin Galactic, a man has indeed been lost. It’s a hard and tragic truth that that death, unlike the Apollo 13 breakdown, was foreseeable. So too is the risk of a ship full of paying tourists suffering the same fate if Branson’s enterprise ever gets off the ground. It shouldn’t.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME psychology

The Absurd Cost of Overreaction

HONDURAS-HEALTH-EBOLA-EPIDEMIC-AIRPORT
Honduras' Health personnel screen arriving passengers for the deadly Ebola virus at Tegucigalpa's Toncontin international airport on October 20, 2014. ORLANDO SIERRA—AFP/Getty Images

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from UC Berkeley and is a career and personal coach.

Whether it's Ebola, Malaysia Flight 370 or the shoe bomber, our post-disaster spending efforts may not be the wisest

A guy puts a plastic explosive in his shoes and now millions of us must take off our shoes at the airport. Terrorists know that, so the chance of shoe-bombing a plane is infinitesimal. With 100% certitude, we’re wasting millions of minutes of people’s time. We don’t think probabilistically.

One person in the U.S. has died of Ebola and we’re now spending a fortune on special training for every hospital worker in the country, screening passengers additionally at major airports, and talking of a worldwide travel ban. Congress, the Executive Branch, the CDC and related federal agencies, not to mention the news media, have reallocated much of their time and effort to Ebola. What is the probability that all that will save lives? Minuscule. Think of how many more lives could be saved if we directed all that money and effort, for example, to reducing the number of bicyclist deaths because car drivers aren’t conditioned to look for them? But we don’t think probabilistically. We overreact to the disaster du jour.

We spent a fortune trying to find Malaysia Flight 370 in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which covers 28.4 million square miles, 20% of Earth’s water surface, in hopes of finding information that could prevent future crashes. What are the odds of finding it, let alone providing information that ends up saving lives? Near zero. If you wanted to improve airline safety (not particularly necessary—it’s much safer to fly than to drive a car), you’d more likely do it, infinitely less expensively, by reviewing pre-flight inspection procedures to see if they might be improved. But we don’t think probabilistically. We overreact.

Even when respected leaders err, we overreact. For example, David Petraeus, a highly decorated four-star general, went on to be Director of the CIA, where he was respected by both Republicans and Democrats. Yet, when it was uncovered that he was having an extramarital affair with his biographer, he was forced to resign.

Some governmental overreaction isn’t unwillingness to think probabilistically. It’s politics. The administration feels the need to show that government is doing something—even if the cost is absurd. Alas, somehow, the media rarely discusses the cost-benefit ratio, let alone the opportunity costs of such efforts.

We are not immune

Of course, we, in our private lives, aren’t immune to overreaction:

You get dumped by a romantic partner or three and so fear you’re doomed to a life of celibacy. Overreaction.

You’re searching for a career. Someone tells you that one is bad. You then cross it off your list, failing to recognize that a sample size of one has little validity. Overreaction.

You apply for four jobs and don’t even get an interview. You assume you’re doomed to a McJob or less. Overreaction.

In 1982, when seven people died of Tylenol that had been laced with cyanide, the value of Tylenol’s manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson’s stock price lost 17.5% of its value in the first five trading days following the Tylenol incident, but in a little more than two months, it had gained it all back.

The takeaway

It’s not easy, but we should replace visceral reactions to a single experience or three with probabilistic thinking: What is the probability of such an event occurring in the future? What’s the cost-benefit of accepting that possibility? Of trying to prevent it? What could that effort otherwise be spent on? What action would yield the most good for you, your family, workplace, the larger society? Few exhortations could do more good for humankind than: Replace overreaction with probabilistic thinking.

Marty Nemko is an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Natural Disasters

20 Million Set to Take Part in ‘Great ShakeOut’ Earthquake Drill

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate speaks during an event on earthquake preparedness Oct. 14, 2014 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate speaks during an event on earthquake preparedness Oct. 14, 2014 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC. Alex Wong—Getty Images

At 10:16 a.m on Thursday, millions of people around the world will practice the "drop, cover and hold on" moves

More than 20 million people around the world on Thursday are expected to take part in the Great ShakeOut Earthquake Drills, an annual event that promotes earthquake readiness.

At 10:16 a.m. on Oct. 16, participants will practice the government-recommended “drop, cover and hold on” protocol, which involves getting on the ground, taking cover under a table or desk and holding on until the earthquake is over.

With 10.32 million people registered, California has the highest participation of any U.S. state or nation taking part. ShakeOut events are also happening inNew Zealand, Japan, Southern Italy and parts of Canada as well. More than 25 million people in total are participating in a ShakeOut event of some kind during 2014, according to the Great ShakeOut organization.

ShakeOuts started in California, where earthquakes are common, but soon spread to other states, and the drills are usually coordinated with local emergency services.

TIME Taiwan

Taiwan’s Crippling Gas Explosion Caught On Camera

Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city, is currently in a state of disarray due to blasts caused by a gas explosion. The number of casualties has now surpassed 250, with bodies continuing to be discovered as the day progresses.

Eruptions began around midnight Thursday and continued into the morning Friday. Taiwan’s Central News Agency (CNA) announced that residents had been reporting smells of leaking gas to authorities prior to the explosions.

Investigations are currently underway to uncover how the blasts could have occurred and who was responsible. It is currently assumed that the cause was underground gas leaks from petrochemical pipelines built alongside the city’s sewer system.

TIME Disasters

Fear of Flying: Don’t Be Fooled By the Scary News—Air Travel Is as Safe as Ever

If you're like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. But you've reached the wrong conclusion.

The news from the skies couldn’t get grimmer. In just the week since Malaysian Airlines flight 17 was brought down by a missile strike in Ukraine, killing 298 people, two more planes have gone down or gone missing: On July 23, a TransAsia flight crashed off Taiwan, killing 58 people, probably due to turbulence caused by typhoon Matmo; this morning an Air Algerie plane with 116 people aboard disappeared from radar and is thought to have crashed off of Mali, another possible victim of weather. And all of this comes in the wake of the still-mysterious March 8 disappearance of Malaysian Air flight 370, with 239 people aboard.

If you’re like most people, the temptation is to swear off air travel, at least for a while. And, like most people, you’ve reached the wrong conclusion.

Human beings are very good at a lot of things, but we’re terrible when it comes to risk assessment. That’s not our fault; we’re wired that way. If the tiger comes from one patch of the forest, you avoid that patch. If snakes are in one fruit tree you never return to it. But the modern world presents a whole lot more complexity than our still slowly developing brains are equipped to handle. And few things flummox us more than airplanes.

Start with the fact that we can’t wrap our brains around how they work in the first place. Yes, there are engines and lift and flaps and who-knows what all keeping them up. But the fact is, a fully loaded 747 weighs 975,000 lbs and attains a top speed of 570 mph at altitudes exceeding 6.5 mi. That kind of machine just shouldn’t work and so we always half-assume it won’t.

There is, too, the much discussed helplessness attendant to buckling yourself into an airline seat, obeying all the rules about seat backs and tray tables and turning off electronic equipment and when you can jolly well get up to go to the bathroom. When you’re behind the wheel, you feel like you’re in control. When an anonymous pilot is at the stick, you feel like little more than cargo.

The occasional rash of disasters like the recent ones don’t help matters any. But the fact is, those are just statistical clusters — the airline equivalent of a few people in one country developing a rare form of cancer, which gets people looking for an environmental toxin or some other cause, when in fact it may just be random numbers at play. Yes, flying into a war zone or the teeth of a typhoon is going to increase the danger that something very bad is going to happen to you. But avoid those obvious no-go zones and the odds are very good you’ll be just fine.

In 2010, according to a report by the U.N.’s Civil Aviation Organization, there were a breathtaking 30,566,513 commercial departures worldwide. Yet, according to an authoritative site that tracks all departures and arrivals, there were only 12 crashes of planes carrying more than 18 people and only three of them resulted in more than 99 fatalities. Those deaths were an unspeakable tragedy for the people who lost their lives and the families they left behind, but in the cold calculus of probability, they’re less than a rounding error compared to all the people who flew aboard those 30.5 million flights.

Despite such low individual odds, one thing that scares us off of airplanes is the unavoidably uneven distribution of the crashes that do occur. So the 35 commercial accidents in 1968 and 1969, the 34 in 1972 and 1973, and the 33 in 1989, would have likely had a lot of people reaching for their car keys and hitting the roads instead. And it’s worse when one of the crashes is especially notorious — such as the Dec. 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which directly preceded 1989′s string of comparatively bad luck.

The Sept. 11 attacks, of course, are the darkest example of all. The two flights that brought down the World Trade Towers alone top the list of the world’s worst air disasters, with the 2,907 deaths easily outdistancing the two-plane runway accident that claimed 583 lives on Tenerife in the Canary Islands in 1977.

Air travel suffered badly in the wake of Sept. 11, but so, it turned out, did some of the people who avoided the planes. From October to December 2001 there were 1,000 more highway fatalities than there had been in that same period the year before — the simple result of more people being on the road. “It was called the 9/11 effect,” David Ropeik, an independent risk consultant and a former professor of the Harvard School of Public Health, told me for my 2007 book Simplexity. Nearly 3,000 people died as a direct result of the attacks and a third again as an indirect one.

Air travel, surely, is not risk free, but it’s hardly a new observation to say that nothing is. Statistical clusters do smooth out over even a relatively short period of time and what feels like a grave danger today will seem relatively benign again tomorrow. The tragedy of the lives lost on the recent crashes is a very real thing; but so is the low likelihood of any one person suffering the same sorrowful end.

TIME Disasters

No, Fidel Castro’s Niece Wasn’t on the Algerian Plane

Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and daughter of Cuba's President Raul Castro, gives a press conference in Havana, Cuba on May 5, 2014.
Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education and daughter of Cuba's President Raul Castro, gives a press conference in Havana, Cuba on May 5, 2014. Franklin Reyes—AP

"I’m alive and kicking"

Multiple news outlets reported Thursday that Cuban President Raul Castro’s daughter—Fidel Castro’s niece—was on the Air Algérie flight that disappeared earlier in the day, citing information from the airport in Burkina Faso. Mariela Castro, a sexologist and gay rights activist, is the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education.

But she wasn’t on the flight.

“I’m at a meeting, happy and healthy,” she told the television network TeleSUR. “I’m alive and kicking.”

The Facebook post which appeared to have first reported the news was later deleted.

 

 

TIME Disaster

California Wildfires Still Raging After Burning Homes

The latest wildfire that broke out in Carlsbad on Wednesday is one of several fires dotting Southern California. At least 30 homes were engulfed in flames, causing thousands of evacuations, including from Legoland, the popular amusement park

Updated: May 15, 2014, 7:30 a.m. E.T.

Wildfires whipped along by blustering winds during a massive drought have burned at least 30 homes and forced thousands to flee in southern California, where several blazes continue to burn as of Thursday morning.

At least 15,000 people have been ordered to evacuate their homes in Carlsbad, California, among the towns hardest hit by the wildfires. The Carlsbad fires also forced park officials on Wednesday to shut down Legoland, a local LEGO-themed amusement park.

Cal State San Marcos, a San Diego County college with approximately 10,000 students, and Camp Pendleton, an area Marine Corps base, have also been evacuated.

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency late Wednesday after local county officials urged him to do so as firefighting resources ran thin in the face of spreading fires.

The cause of the fires is not known, but officials say temperatures reaching into the 100s and the ongoing drought in the region make the area ripe for wildfires.

Two firefighters have been injured fighting the blazes, one with a heat-related injury and another due to smoke inhalation.

[LA Times]

TIME

Washington Authorities End Mudslide Search

Washington Mudslide Transition
A search dog walks on a tree as the search continues for the remaining missing victims of the massive deadly mudslide that hit the community of Oso, Wash on April 16, 2014. Ted S. Warren—AP

The hunt for bodies of victims in Washington state has drawn to a close, five weeks after the devastating mudslide that killed 41

After weeks of searching for bodies from the March 22 mudslide in Washington state, authorities are ending the search.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary said the decision to quit was difficult as there were still two bodies missing, the Associated Press reports.

41 victims have been found, and 11 people were saved on the day of the mudslide. Hundreds of people and dogs have participated in the search since the March 22 disaster.

According to the Associated Press, a commission will independently review the incident, and it could take up to three months to clear all the debris. The disaster caused around $10 million worth of damage, and a further $32 million in recovery costs.

[AP]

TIME Washington

This Satellite Photo Of Washington Mudslide Shows Full Extent of Damage

A DigitalGlobe close-up satellite imagery of the Osa, Washington mudslide area after the March 2014 tragedy. Imagery collected on March 31st, 2014.
A DigitalGlobe close-up satellite imagery of the Oso, Washington mudslide area after the March 2014 tragedy. Imagery collected on March 31st, 2014. DigitalGlobe/Getty Images

An image snapped from a DigitalGlobe satellite on March 31 shows the enormous damage caused by the March 22 mudslide in Snohomish County, where at least 27 bodies have been found and search teams are still looking for 22 people who remain missing

A satellite image taken Monday illustrates the full extent of damage caused by the March 22 mudslide in Snohomish County, Wash. Rescuers are still looking through the wreckage in search of victims. The death toll rose to 27 Tuesday, while the number of missing remained at 22.

Washington state Governor Jay Inslee urged President Barack Obama on Monday to make a “major disaster declaration” in Snohomish County, as financial losses mounted in the rescue operations. That would allow individuals and businesses to access federal relief programs, including disaster-related unemployment insurance and housing.

TIME Disasters

WATCH: Footage of Chicago Airport Train Crash Leaked Online

Chicago Transportation Authority did not authorize release of security camera footage showing train jumping tracks at O'Hare airport

A Chicago train derailed at O’Hare International Airport on Monday, injuring 32 people. Union officials stated that the operator of the train that jumped its tracks before scaling up an escalator may have dozed off at the wheel, according to the Associated Press.

Now, a video has been leaked of the train as it barrels into the station. In the video, a security guard and a man are seen running out of the way. There are more than 40 surveillance cameras in the CTA’s Blue Line O’Hare station, according to ABC News. Officials have not disclosed whether the video came from one of those cameras.

“CTA did not release a video and does not have a comment at this time. All matters are being handled by the NTSB,” a CTA spokesperson told TIME.

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