The dream of Virgin Galactic — a radical commercial space-travel effort that experienced a tragic setback yesterday — will live on, said founder Richard Branson, speaking from the Mojave Desert this morning.
Branson looked somber but resolute as he addressed the press for the first time since yesterday’s test-flight crash of the SpaceShip Two, which left one test pilot dead and another seriously injured. Branson had been hoping to launch the company in 2015, making space travel available to paying nonprofessional “astronauts.”
“The bravery of test pilots cannot be overstated,” said Branson, who assured the press that he would be working with investigators. “We’ve always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project. … This is the biggest test program ever carried out in aviation history — precisely to ensure that this doesn’t happen to the public.”
Branson quoted retired astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield, who he said had written to him: “As a former test pilot, crashes and sadly even deaths were frequent. It is a known part of the business. Little solace but reality. Pushing the bounds of knowledge and possibility comes with unavoidable risks.”
“In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Branson said. “Yesterday we fell short.”
The public response has been positive, Branson said. “If I could hug every single person who sent messages of love, support and understanding, I would,” he said.
But an editorial in Time magazine yesterday, entitled “Enough with Amateur Hour Space Flight,” called the billionaire’s space ambitions “hubris.”
Silicon Valley leaders like Chris Sacca, a prominent investor in companies like Uber and Twitter, were quick to defend Branson’s endeavor as brave and in the name of research:
Branson quoted another astronaut, Lisa Nowak, who wrote to him: “Of course risk is part of space flight. We accept some of that to achieve greater goals in exploration and find out more about ourselves and about the universe.”
Branson, in a velvet blazer and slightly unbuttoned white shirt, looked out at the audience: “I truly believe that humanity’s greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain.”
He took questions, and a reporter asked if “the dream lives on.” It does.
Another reporter said she had heard that the spacecraft was doomed, that it wouldn’t work, “no matter what.” Branson bristled and said it was inappropriate to ask questions about the spacecraft before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had finished its investigation.
“I’m not allowed to comment at all on any aspect of the spacecraft,” he said. “And to be honest, I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they’re saying could be saying things before the NTSB comments.”
Branson said he plans to “finish what we started,” because millions of people hope to go to space.
“In the early days of aviation, there were incidents, and then aviation became very safe,” he said. “In the early day of commercial space travel, there have been incidents, and we hope that one day the test pilots will enable people to go to space safely.”
Finally, a reporter asked what Branson’s message was for people who’d already paid for seats — more than 700 people have paid $250,000 for seats on the commercial spaceline.
“Of course, anybody who ever wants a refund will be able to get a refund,” he said.
He later tweeted:
Watch the press conference here:
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.