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Saturday, Jul 2, 2022

Ticket Holders Staying in Seats

When Virgin Galactic LLC resumed the flight tests of its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle last month, the company notified Edwin Sahakian by email that the craft would be going up on Halloween. Sahakian doesn’t work for Virgin Galactic, which is developing and building its space vehicle at the Mojave Air & Space Port. And his day job as chief executive of a shipping company he founded has nothing to do with space travel. But the 51-year-old Glendale resident did plunk down $200,000 to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo when it eventually starts taking paying passengers up to an altitude of 62 miles above Earth. “I am passionate about aerospace so I was willing to pay that price,” said Sahakian, who heads up Ardwin Freight in Sun Valley. Sahakian’s wait to fly got longer after the Oct. 31 crash of the six-seat SpaceShipTwo that killed the co-pilot and injured the pilot. Friends contacted Sahakian that day to let him know there had been an accident. It was the spacecraft’s fourth test flight using its rocket engines. But last month’s crash hasn’t changed his determination to achieve a dream of getting – if not to actual space – at least to an altitude at which he can achieve weightlessness. “I cannot give up on that opportunity,” Sahakian said. Apparently he will have plenty of company. Not many of the other roughly 700 people who have already paid to ride aboard SpaceShipTwo are backing out. Virgin Galactic founder billionaire Richard Branson posted on his blog that while payments are refundable few have been requested. Entertainment industry trade publication Hollywood Reporter reported on Nov. 10 that just 20 people are seeking refunds. “On the contrary, we have had inquiries about purchasing Virgin Galactic tickets this week,” Branson wrote on Nov. 6, “including many new future astronauts either signing up or in the process of signing up to show solidarity with the team and the project.” Since the crash, Sahakian has talked with other future passengers from outside the Los Angeles area and they plan to stick with taking a flight. “I don’t know anybody not going forward or at least standing by for more information,” he added. SpaceShipTwo crashed just minutes after being dropped by carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo at an altitude of more than 50,000 feet. Debris was found in empty Mojave Desert scrub just east of Red Rock Canyon Park. Co-Pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed in the crash while pilot Peter Siebold, 43, parachuted to safety but was injured. The cause of the accident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. A preliminary finding has focused on pilot error, with indications that Alsbury prematurely released a lever unlocking a device that slows the spacecraft down after reaching suborbital altitude. Greg Autry is assistant professor in Clinical Entrepreneurship at the Marshall School of Business at USC and an observer of the aerospace industry who has visited the Mojave facility multiple times. He said that he expected it would take the company six months to a year to catch up where it was in flight testing when the crash occurred. A second SpaceShipTwo vehicle was already being built and is about two-thirds completed at Spaceship Co., a Virgin Galactic subsidiary also based at the Mojave Air & Space Port. The Oct. 31 test flight also was the first for SpaceShipTwo since January and was using a new type of fuel in the rocket engines. Counterintuitively, Autry believes that while there might be a short-term slump in people wanting to fly, in the long term the industry will get a boost. He cited adventure tourists who climb Mount Everest despite deaths on the mountain every year. “There are many reasons to choose space travel,” he said. “It is risky and it shows that people are risk-takers and doing something that other people are not willing to do.” Aerospace enthusiast Sahakian is a pilot and flight instructor with a long fascination for aerospace and space travel. In 2004, he was following the Ansari X Prize competition to fly a reusable space vehicle to suborbital altitude twice in two weeks. The prize was won by SpaceShipOne, designed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and built by Scaled Composites, a Mojave manufacturer and now a Northrop Grumman Corp. subsidiary. SpaceShipOne became the prototype for SpaceShipTwo – also built by Scaled Composites – when Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to take paying passengers on suborbital flights. “As soon as they announced they were going to sell seats and commercialize it, I signed up,” Sahakian said. Getting in early makes Sahakian a member of the Founders Tier and eligible to fly on one of the first 16 flights. He’s also had a chance to meet Branson and Siebold, the pilot injured in the crash. The $200,000 price Sahakian paid in 2005 has since increased to $250,000. Singer Justin Bieber and actors Ashton Kutcher and Leonardo DiCaprio are among the big-name passengers who have put up cash to reserve a spot. While that is obviously a lot of money, Sahakian has the cash as the owner of Ardwin Freight, which he founded in 1988. He grew the company into one of the largest shippers in Southern California, with more than 50 employees and 150 truck owner-operators serving multiple industries. However, he wasn’t prepared to go the route of Dennis Tito, a Los Angeles multimillionaire who, in 2001, paid $20 million to fly aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a week-long stay at the International Space Station. Still, Sahakian has had to deal with his family, which is anxious about his wanting to fly on Virgin Galactic. His sisters have tried to talk him out of it, but his brother, an aerospace engineer, wants to see him do it. He said his wife and 16-year-old son are comfortable, given that he is safety-minded and more familiar with aircraft and flying than probably many of the other Virgin Galactic passengers. “I have promised everyone that if I ever feel that the risk is too great then I will not proceed,” Sahakian said.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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