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The Virgin Knight

Sir Richard Branson's new world order: save the planet, save its people and keep an eye on things from above. Way, way above.
Betsy Model
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

(continued from page 4)

Branson's dream was to be the first private company to offer consumers the opportunity for space travel and, in typical Branson style, he sat down to figure out how to make that dream a reality.

"I set off around the world to meet every zany mad scientist I could find who was into rocket and space technology—there were incredible contraptions, and one day I should write a book about them—but then finally came across Burt Rutan. He's a genius…the best engineering genius and space genius and aviation genius in the world. Burt was just in the developing stage of building Spaceship One [so] we offered to build [it] with him and watch the dream of flying SpaceShipOne. And now, using that technology, we're now building SpaceShipTwo, which is quite a bit bigger, and a year from now it will be on its first test flight. And 18 months from now my children [and my wife and I] and my parents, God willing, will go up in the first flight and it will be the start of an exciting new era in space travel."

Branson's eyes gleam every time he talks of space travel, and his demeanor is far closer to that of a small boy with a new model airplane—or rocket ship—than that of most business tycoons discussing a new venture. Of course, to Branson it's as much adventure as venture.

"The initial flight will go about 70 miles into space," Branson continues, "so basically, you'll take off [and] you'll go up to 60,000 feet. You'll be attached under the mother ship, drop away [and then] you'll have the biggest rush of your life from naught to 3.5 thousand mph in 10 seconds. In space you'll unbuckle and through enormous big windows you'll be able to float around and look back at the Earth."

Whether they go up in the actual flights or not, New Mexico voters are pretty enthused about Branson's plans; they've just voted in favor of a $150 million bond that will pay for part of the space port construction already under way in the state's southern region. That the space port's location is less than 40 miles from Roswell, the little town that just celebrated the 60th anniversary of an (alleged) alien spacecraft landing, and which drew tens of thousands of visitors from all over the globe for the anniversary festivities, isn't lost on Branson, and he chuckles at all the nicknames that immediately come to mind for his latest venture, names like Space Cadet, Space Cowboy, Space Monkey and Rocket Man.

On the other hand, in spite of the extraordinary investment required to launch the company—and the spaceships—Branson may, once again, be laughing all the way to the bank. With an estimated trip price of $200,000, more than 100 would-be passengers have already signed up and another 40,000 people have placed deposits on future trips. And Branson's already planning additional sources of revenue and business: launches of satellites, the build-out of small hotels in space ("with spas…zero gravity spas") and even the possibility of 30-minute commuter flights from New York to Australia.

When it's thrown back at him that he might just be creating the mother of all jet lag moments, Branson only smirks. "But it won't be jet lag," he counters, "it will be space lag! If we can just pop the spaceship up out of the Earth's atmosphere and straight back down again [then] the only problem will be the airports. You know, getting up to the gates!"

If much of Branson's enthusiasm for this next venture is visible—wide grins, hands slapping the table and his very nearly bouncing up and down in his chair as he describes some of the wilder possibilities—there's one aspect of Virgin Galactic that he's dead serious about: he's committed to making the flights as environmentally benign as possible.

"Did you know that the NASA spaceship uses up almost two weeks of New York's electricity supply when it goes up?" asks Branson. "Both our space flights and our satellite flights [will be] almost completely environmentally benign."

Branson only laughs when asked if a very, very large rubber band is involved, and instead begins talking seriously about his other two big passions at the moment: the environment and his commitment to finding alternatives to fossil fuel for transportation (including space transportation) and how environmental corporate responsibility is only part of what every company—and individual—should be doing for the good of the planet and its inhabitants. Especially those in developing countries.

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