Richard Branson, still cutting a charismatic figure at 70, flew to space and made it safely back again with his space tourism company Virgin Galactic. It was another milestone for Branson, who first made his fortune in the record business with Virgin Records in the early 1970s.
It’s been a long time since Branson embarked on his space enterprise, founding Virgin Galactic in 2004. In February 2007 I attended a ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., at which 45 Virtuoso travel agents were certified as Accredited Space Agents, after completing Virgin Galactic’s training regimen.
Anything to do with Branson is going to be done with top notch PR, and holding the event at Cape Canaveral was a brilliant stroke. Having dinner under a giant Saturn 5 Rocket created a heady atmosphere for travel agents tasked with introducing space flight to the public.
It gave the event a great boost to connect with the US space program—at the location of the historic enterprises of the space program in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The first consumer launches of Virgin Galactic sub-orbital flights were set to start in 2008. Some early adopters had already put down $100,000 deposits to reserve their spots on the first launches, which were priced at $200,000 at the time.
The first ticket in America had been sold by Jack Ezon, of Ovation Vacations in New York. It was mere pocket change to a hedge fund manager in his late 30s, who had just received an $8 million Christmas bonus.
Besides offering what could be the most thrilling adventure in history, the program had the further objective of establishing a transportation system using suborbital flight technology to travel from New York to Sydney in an hour. It pointed to a glorious future.
As a reporter I was one of few attendees who had not gone through the training. But Virgin showed spectacular films to fill in the background about its space tourism program. It was hard not to be swept away. It was mega-impressive.
The agents were even more starry-eyed about it than I was. The possibilities ignited their most idealistic childhood dreams and aspirations. The conversations were not limited to sales volume and marketing. Space tourism had got them talking about things like spiritual evolution and human destiny.
“Sometimes during the training, I almost pinched myself; because what we were learning and absorbing is a reality,” said Barbara S. King, co-president of Great Getaways in Leawood, Kansas. “Space travel is really happening, and can only grow from sub-orbital to orbital! I love the concept of being able, perhaps, one day to travel at the same speed as the space station and go from New York to Sydney in an hour! My personal belief is that we are one tiny part of the cosmos, that to be able to see Earth from afar may prompt us to realize we are all brothers and sisters.”
Stewart Lieberman of ProTravel in New York described the experience of presenting space travel to clients.
“When I’m talking to clients about it, there’s definitely an interest,” he said. “It’s not just an ego thing that they want to be first in space. When I tell them it’s an otherworldly experience, at first they laugh. Then they realize it’s true. Some of the astronauts who have gone up and seen the curvature said it had a very profound effect on them. Anybody who sees it is changed for life.”
Virgin’s technology was impressive. The company had implemented an elegantly simple solution to the problem of lift-off, getting an aircraft outside of the pull of gravity. NASA’s rockets were like firecrackers the size of skyscrapers. Once ignition started, they burned until all the fuel was gone. They cost millions of dollars and were only used once. It was like flying a 747 transatlantic and then trashing it.
Virgin had adopted a system in which the launch vehicle was preserved and could be re-used. It was a two-stage plan conceived by designer Burt Rutan, in which the passenger vehicle rides piggyback on jet aircraft to an altitude of 50,000 feet. From there, it is shot beyond the edge of space, which NASA defines as the Kármán line 62 miles above the earth. For four minutes the crew floats weightless.
After a wild, silent ride above the atmosphere, the craft’s tail would fold up, creating drag that would slow its descent back to earth, falling gently like a badminton shuttlecock.
Virgin Galactic’s Carolyn Wincer, head of astronaut sales at the time, described the launch.
“The WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo, gets to 50,000 feet,” she said. “It’s higher than anything you’ve ever flown in, but the Concord. You see the curvature of the earth. Then SpaceShipTwo drops, freefalls, the two clear of each other and SpaceShipTwo ignites and shoots into space—literally faster than a speeding bullet.”
Passengers will be pinned to their seats at 3 Gs for 90 seconds while the engine screams and the craft climbs beyond the 62-mile border of space. “It flies from 50,000 feet to 360,000 feet, 70 miles,” said Wincer. “The sky changes from blue to black. The pilot turns off the engine to instant silence and weightlessness. On one side, the view is black. On the other, a 10,000-mile view in any direction on earth. You’ll be in a spacious cabin with large windows. You continue to climb for a while after the engine is turned off. Then the earth pulls you back.”
The Long Wait
I believed what was promised, and expected the launches to begin in 2008. But 2008 came and went with no Virgin space flights on the market. Then years went by, until it seemed doubtful whether it would ever happen.
Then in 2014 Virgin Galactic made headlines again. Branson had been promising that the passenger launches would begin by the end of the year. But then, there was a crash that injured the pilot and killed the co-pilot. It was Halloween 2014 when the VSS Enterprise, a SpaceShipTwo experimental flight test vehicle, came apart in flight and crash landed in the Mojave Desert.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the accident was caused by co-pilot’s premature unlocking of the air brake device used for atmospheric re-entry. After more investigation, the board cited other contributing factors, including inadequate design safeguards, poor pilot training, and lack of rigorous oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration.
At that time the world witnessed a greatly humbled Richard Branson, a changed man, no longer with the glow of the young entrepreneur ready to take on every industry and do better than anyone either in the private or public spheres.
As the founder of an airline, and a bold privatizer of the British rail system, he was fervently anti-regulation. But after the crash, a very different Richard Branson was happy to defer to the authorities when asked questions by the press about the tragedy.
For the first time in his life, Branson would have preferred to be forgotten… at least for a while.
The man who had “taken on,” in his words, the record, airline and rail industries, and had the luster of a seemingly perfect record as the prince of entrepreneurs, had finally stumbled. There’s a big difference between perfect and a single failure. It shows you are mortal. No one is guaranteed success forever.
After the tragedy of 2014, Virgin Galactic receded to the sidelines for a while. Meanwhile, some of Branson’s rival billionaires seized center stage with space programs of their own, including Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos.
Virgin Galactic assured the world, from the beginning, that it was not involved in a space race. But Branson is highly competitive, and when you’re a billionaire—you know—you have to keep up with the billionaires down the block.
Branson had also been an adventurer. In 1986, he and a partner set a record for a powerboat crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1987, he and a partner became the first team to cross the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon, and then in 1991 to cross the Pacific.
You can’t expect Branson to sit back and let Musk or Bezos beat him into space. That would be unthinkable, if you were Richard Branson. I’ve met Branson, and his charisma and overwhelming self confidence is resistible—if you have devised a way of halting tsunamis in their tracks. Otherwise, not likely. So, now we see Branson running in from the sidelines to grab the Olympic Gold for Space Tourism.
Musk and his company SpaceX had already made history by piggybacking onto the US-Russia space station program and becoming the first to send private citizens (who can pony up a million bucks) into space, hitching a ride on a routine mission to the space station.
Branson, being Branson, had to seize the initiative. He did so last weekend (July 11), by joining a crew of Virgin Galactic astronauts on one of the company’s suborbital test flights.
So, congratulations to Sir Richard. That the mission was a success is good for everyone. Some say it’s just a bunch of ego tripping among billionaires, and there is that aspect to it. But, if it accomplishes what it has set out to do, it will be an accomplishment comparable to the first flights of the Wright Brothers.
“It’s going to change people emotionally and spiritually, whatever their religion,” said ProTravel’s Stewart Lieberman. “It’s going to change the way we view life. These are exciting times we are living through. I would have never thought it would happen in my life.”
David Cogswell is a freelance writer working remotely, from wherever he is at the moment. Born at the dead center of the United States during the last century, he has been incessantly moving and exploring for decades. His articles have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Fox News, Luxury Travel magazine, Travel Weekly, Travel Market Report, Travel Agent Magazine, TravelPulse.com, Quirkycruise.com and other publications. He is the author of four books and a contributor to several others. He was last seen somewhere in the Northeast U.S.