Friday's in-flight breakup of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, which led to the death of one co-pilot and the serious injury of the other, has undoubtedly hampered hopes for commercial space tourism and other ventures looking to go beyond Earth's atmosphere. Coupled with the explosion an unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. spacecraft last week, the Virgin crash is a stark reminder that space travel is difficult and dangerous work.
In times of crisis, especially deadly ones, having a strong leader is the best—perhaps the only—remedy for emotional deflation. In Virgin's case, Richard Branson didn't leave his company wanting.
Immediately after the crash, Branson took to Twitter, paying his respects for the "brave pilots and families of those affected." Later that evening, Branson posted a blog, again expressing sympathies for the pilots' families and briefly outlining the next steps Virgin would be taking. Branson explained that he would be traveling to the Mojave desert, the site of the crash, immediately to be with the "hard-working people" of Virgin Galactic.
"Space is hard—but worth it," Branson wrote. "We will persevere and move forward together."
Over the weekend, Branson continued to blog about the crash, reflecting on the pilots involved in the crash and vowing to continue Virgin Galactic's mission. He also delivered an informative press conference outlining what is known about the crash. "If I could hug every single person who sent messages of love, support and understanding over the past day, I would," Branson said.
So far, Virgin has been in control of the story, with Branson leading the way. As the NTSB continues its investigation into what exactly caused the crash, finger-pointing will threaten the delicate foundation that Virgin's program—and commercial space exploration in general—is trying to build. Still, in terms of short-term crisis communications, Branson has put on a clinic, and his empathy, frankness and speed in dealing with the Virgin Galactic crash combine to create a great example for top-level crisis managers to follow.
Follow Brian Greene on Twitter: @bw_greene