It’s taken 17 years, with many setbacks and some deaths, and still Richard Branson’s space mission is yet to launchNicholas SchmidleSun 2 May 2021 13.00 BST
Richard Branson was running almost 15 years late. But as we rode into the Mojave desert on the morning of 12 December 2018, he was feeling upbeat and untroubled by the past. He wore jeans, a leather jacket and the easy smile of someone used to being behind schedule.
Branson hadn’t exactly squandered the past 15 years. He’d become a grandfather, moved to a private island in the Caribbean and expanded Virgin’s business empire into banking, hotels, gyms, wedding dresses and more. But he was staking his legacy on Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company he formed in 2004. The idea was to build a rocketship with seats for eight – two pilots, six passengers – that would be carried aloft by a mothership, released about 45,000ft in the air and then zoom just beyond the lower limit of space, float around for a few minutes, before returning to Earth. He was charging $200,000 a seat.
It did not initially seem like such a crazy idea. That year, a boutique aviation firm in Mojave, California, two hours north of Los Angeles, had built a prototype mothership and rocketship that a pair of test pilots flew to space three times, becoming the first privately built space craft. Branson hired the firm to design, build and test him a bigger version of the craft.
But the undertaking was proving far more difficult than Branson anticipated. An accidental explosion in 2007 killed three engineers. A mid-air accident in 2014 destroyed the ship and killed a test pilot, forcing Virgin Galactic to more or less start over.
I approached the company shortly after the accident to ask if I could embed with them and write a story about their space programme for the New Yorker. I worked on the story for four years. After it came out, in August 2018, I spent another two years reporting and writing a book about the test pilots who fly Branson’s spaceship.Advertisement.
Amid the tragedies and setbacks, Branson remained optimistic of the prospect of imminent success. In 2004: “It is envisaged that Virgin Galactic will open for business by the beginning of 2005 and, subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals, begin operating flights from 2007.” Then, in 2009: “I’m very confident that we should be able to meet 2011.” Later, in 2017: “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space, maybe six months before I’m in space.”
Meanwhile, other private space companies, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, were making progress. Branson confessed that had he known in 2004 what he knew now, “I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the project… We simply couldn’t afford it.”
His record on delivering promises has made him a polarising figure. Branson has appeared on lists of both hucksters and heroes. One poll ranked him second among people whom British children should emulate; Jesus Christ came third. His biographer describes him as “a card player with a weak hand who plays to strength,” but also a “self-made and self-deprecating man whose flamboyance endears him to aspiring tycoons, who snap up his books and flock to his lectures to glean the secrets of fortune-hunting.”
But all of that was in the past; the turmoil and hardship would hopefully make the triumph all that much sweeter. For he and I knew as we headed into the desert that tomorrow could finally be the day that Virgin Galactic went to space.
Branson was all smiles as we arrived at our destination north of the airport in Mojave, an expansive, Asimovian facility where Branson’s other space company, Virgin Orbit, tests rockets and where Branson was about to be given a special tour. He listened to the engineers’ canned deliveries, but did not ask about cryogenics or flow rates or other technical details.
That was not his gift. His gift was knowing what people like. Branson is a tastemaker, a marketing genius. He spruces up airplanes, trains, hotels and gyms, rebrands them as his own – and moves on. He knows when to get in and get out: he earned a reported £200m when he sold his stake in Virgin Media, for instance, and another £230m when he sold his stake in Virgin Active. He does not typically make stuff. Yet here he was in the business of making spacecraft.
This brought particular challenges. For one, US law prohibits citizens from sharing technical details with foreigners, even if those foreigners own the company. When Branson asked a rocket question, an engineer responded with silence. “It’s because I’m British, isn’t it?” Branson said, betraying a hint of frustration.
Later in the tour, we visited a test pad where engineers were bent over intricate foil-wrapped tubes, hoses and piping, preparing to conduct a ground test. Branson asked how many more ground tests they intended to conduct and when they could launch an aerial test. Every day they were testing meant another day they weren’t making money.
At least a couple, said the engineer.
“Stop testing!” said Branson, half-joking. “You might find something wrong!”Advertisement
It all started for Branson with the Sex Pistols. In December 1976, the punk band went on a primetime talkshow where the guitarist called the host a “dirty fucker” on air, bringing the segment to an abrupt end. Venues cancelled the band’s upcoming gigs. Their record label dropped them.
Branson was a 26-year-old music producer. He saw an opportunity and signed the band to his label. Five months later, when the Sex Pistols released God Save the Queen, a mockery of the royal Silver Jubilee, the BBC refused to play the single. Branson responded by chartering a boat and setting up a stage on deck. They sailed up the Thames, in front of parliament, while the band played God Save the Queen. Police boarded the boat and shut down the concert.
God Save the Queen jumped to No 2 in the charts. But the stunt was equally important for Branson; it established his rebel reputation, one he has nurtured ever since: “I won’t let silly rules stop me.” He branched into other sectors. Before long, Virgin had its own line of soft drinks, trains, wedding dresses, limousines, wines, airlines, casinos, and condoms.
Virgin’s formula is Branson’s adventuresome brand. He has promoted soda from the top of a tank in Times Square and dangled naked from a crane with only a mobile phone covering his privates to advertise that Virgin Mobile had “nothing to hide” on its bills. He has flown hot-air balloons across oceans and set speedboat records. Along the way, he has survived some close calls – like when his boat capsized in a nasty storm, or when he was attempting to sail across the Atlantic, through the Bermuda Triangle, when the mainsail ripped and forced him to turn back. (He promised, “We will build another boat and try again!”)
He is accustomed to handling setbacks with a smile. This has proven particularly useful at Virgin Galactic, where the company has not provided what it promised, but somehow continues to sell promise.
At the February 2016 rollout for SpaceShipTwo in Mojave, a reporter asked Branson about Virgin Galactic’s longer-term ambitions. Branson said that flying people to space was “pretty cool”, but, “Once you’ve got people into space, why shouldn’t we have point-to-point travel at tremendous speeds? And why shouldn’t we go on creating an orbital vehicle? We will start to do that. I just had a meeting with a senator, talking about asteroids. And they asked, ‘Can Virgin Galactic come up with ideas to try to remove giant asteroids coming toward the Earth?’ We’ll have a look at that. And, ‘Could Virgin Galactic help sort out the debris in space?’ We’ll have a look at that, too. And once all that’s sorted we’d like to join the race for deep-space exploration.”
Virgin Galactic’s president, Mike Moses, sat nearby, and, speaking after Branson, stressed how an experimental rocketship programme required “evolutionary steps” that were gradual, deliberate and realistic.
“One of the things I hate is the world judging us based on what our marketing has said in terms of our readiness to fly and the depth of our knowledge,” Moses once told me.
Branson knows that people snigger. “It would be embarrassing if someone went back over the last 13 years and wrote down all my quotes about when I thought we would be in space,” he told me.
But he is uniquely unfazed by embarrassment. He stutters when he speaks without notes. He shares unflattering details about his sex life, like his “bizarre sexual allergy” to his first wife. “Whenever we made love a painful rash spread across me which would take about three weeks to heal,” he once wrote. “We went to a number of doctors, but we never resolved the problem. I even had a circumcision to try to stop the reaction.”
Somehow it added to his charm. A couple years ago, I contacted him and asked if I could visit him in the British Virgin Islands to discuss the programme. He extended a personal invitation. I booked plane tickets, while his assistant arranged a speedboat transfer and asked if I had any dietary restrictions. “So I can let our chefs know in advance,” she said. But on the eve of my trip, Branson’s advisers found out what was happening and revoked the invitation. Branson had apparently made plans without consulting his communications director.
At the time, I saw it as proof of Branson’s swashbuckling insouciance: he could live that persona and let others protect him from himself. Perhaps I should have seen it as another empty promise.
The day after we drove into the desert, Branson stepped on to a stage beside the runway. Behind him, Virgin Galactic’s mothership, with SpaceShipTwo fixed to its belly, was preparing to takeoff. Branson welcomed the select crowd. “I’m not allowed to say it, but hopefully we’re going to space today!” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have some magic in the next couple of hours.” An hour later, Branson was squinting against the sun, tracking SpaceShipTwo’s contrails across the blue morning sky.
Space travel has been a longtime obsession of his. He once produced a documentary to commemorate the moon landing, featuring ambient soundscapes, a psychedelic montage of telescope images and clips of John F Kennedy’s “moon shot” speech. Later, when Branson appeared on the BBC’s Going Live!, a viewer called in and asked if he’d contemplated any extraterrestrial ventures. “I’d love to go into space,” said Branson. “If you’re building a spacecraft, I’d love to come with you.”
Accounts from astronauts further fuelled Branson’s fascination. Weightlessness sounded positively bananas to him – having to Velcro everything down so that it didn’t float away; being able to pitch a bread roll at your tablemate without worrying it would end up falling on to a dirty floor.
But what moved Branson most was how astronauts described the transformative power of it all, its almost baptismal nature. “Once people have gone to space they come back with renewed enthusiasm to try and tackle what is happening on this planet,” he told me. He regarded space travel as a humanistic, rather than an escapist, venture. And now, suddenly, it seemed possible that he could offer that experience to the masses.
He watched the flight from the foot of the stage while an engineer stood at the mic, relaying updates from mission control. They had to get above 264,000ft, or 50 miles, which the US government defines as the boundary of space.
The ship was climbing.
“Two hundred thousand,” said the engineer.
“Two hundred and twenty thousand feet.”
“Two hundred and forty thousand feet.”
Branson looked up. Tears welled in his eyes.
“Two hundred and fifty thousand feet.”
“Two hundred and…” The engineer paused, awaiting confirmation. He got it:
“Two. Hundred. And. Sixty. Four. Thousand. Feet.”
Up in the cockpit the pilot Mark Stucky said: “Great motor burn, everybody! We’re going to space, Richard!”
The crowd whooped and cheered.
Branson covered his face with both hands, cratering with emotion. His son Sam stood next to him and put his hand on his father’s back. “That was the definition of a picture telling a thousand words, a thousand sleepless nights,” Sam told me. Later, Branson held an impromptu press conference. He burned easily in the sun so he found a sliver of shade behind a trailer and reporters crowded in.
Mike Moses hung near the back, but within earshot. Branson declared that SpaceShipTwo could be done with its flight-test programme in as little as three months.Advertisementhttps://434e1aa080312bef59a0a2925c1c884b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
As yet, they have only returned to space once and are still testing. A temporary stall? Or have the costs of this undertaking finally caught up with Branson?
I am no longer embedded with the company, but stay in touch with people there. I know that two years ago the vice-president of safety resigned because of safety concerns, and that a December 2020 flight was aborted in midair. (In a statement, a Virgin Galactic spokesperson said, “We feel confident about our space operations, which are regulated by the FAA office of commercial spaceflight transportation. Flight test programmes are an iterative process with safety as the first priority and it is well known that we have overcome a variety of technical challenges over the past 15 years. Our safety culture is built around the principle that everyone in the company has the ability to call attention to an issue.” They added: “As we are still in the flight test phase of the programme, we continue to analyse, inspect and modify the vehicles as necessary, and we are on track to conduct our next spaceflight in May.”) I also know, from public information, that while Virgin Galactic’s space programme may be struggling, its bottom line seems strong. In late 2019, Virgin Galactic became a publicly traded company: at one point the stock was trading at almost five times its initial price offering. However, in recent weeks, as Virgin Galactic’s competitors progress, the stock has begun to fall.
Last year, Branson sold $500m worth of shares. Last month, he sold another $150m worth of shares.
He has always seemed to have known when to get in and when to get out.