Richard Branson says he’ll go into space ‘in months, not years’

In our latest roundup on the ultra rich, the Virgin Galactic founder says only a few more test flights are needed and China’s ‘Nasdaq’ mints three new billionaires

Richard Branson is presented with a space-themed cake during a luncheon attended by 100 Virgin Galactic ticket holders, to mark his 69th birthday and in recognition of the Apollo 11 moon landing anniversary at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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Richard Branson

Inspired by Apollo, Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson said his spaceship has just a few more test flights before he jumps on board for the first tourist trip.

The British billionaire celebrated his 69th birthday at NASA's Kennedy Space Center during 50th anniversary festivities for humanity's first moon landing. His guests were 100 other aspiring astronauts who have put down deposits to launch into space with Virgin Galactic. Like Mr Branson, many in the crowd were inspired to fly into space by Apollo 11, which he called "the most audacious journey of all time."

Mr Branson said three or four test flights will be conducted from New Mexico, beginning this autumn, before engineers allow him to fly. The two suborbital test flights to date — conducted in December and February over California's Mohave Desert — provided several minutes of weightlessness.

Mr Branson declined to say when his flight might happen.

"My track record for giving dates has been so abysmal that I'm not giving dates anymore. But I think months, not years," he told The Associated Press.

The company is in the process of moving from Southern California to Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert, which has set everything back four months, according to Mr Branson. The test pilots need to practice landing there, he said, before passengers tag along.

"I certainly won't go into space before brave test pilots feel 100 per cent comfortable that we've checked every box," Mr Branson said.

In 2014, the company's experimental space plane broke apart during a California test flight, killing the co-pilot.

Mr Branson said Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon landing was forever etched in his memory. Watching those first lunar footsteps on a little black and white TV, with his sisters and parents in the English countryside, was a turning point for him. He said it's why Virgin Galactic exists today.

Li Qiang, center left, Shanghai's Party chief, and Yi Huiman, center right, chairman at China Securities Regulatory Commission, strikes a gong to launch the SSE STAR Market in the hall of Shanghai Securities Exchange in Shanghai, China, Monday, July 22, 2019. Trading started Monday on a Chinese stock market for high-tech companies that play a key role in official development plans that are straining relations with Washington. (Chinatopix via AP)

Michael Deng, Wenyuan Chen and Ji Cao

Shares on China's new tech-focused stock board, STAR Market, hit fever pitch on their first day of trading last week, with 25 companies soaring an average 140 per cent. The success has propelled at least three people straight into the billionaire's club, Fortune magazine reported.

Michael Deng, chief executive of ArcSoft, now has roughly a $1.1 billion (Dh4.04bn) stake in the Northern California-based software maker after shares jumped 127 per cent in its first day of trading for a valuation of roughly $3.9bn, according to filings with the Shanghai Stock Exchange.

Suzhou HYC Technology registered gains of 129 per cent, giving shares owned by chairman Wenyuan Chen and his wife Zhang Qian, a value of about $2.7bn. The company, which builds smart displays and organic light-emitting diode testing equipment, is valued at around $3.2bn.

The third billionaire founded Zhejiang HangKe Technology, a producer of lithium ion batteries. Chairman Ji Cao owns a $2.3bn stake in that company now worth roughly $3.2bn.

The new billionaires, however, will have to hold on tight. It seems executives and major shareholders of these companies have a lock-in period ranging between 12 to 36 months.

FILE - In this July 30, 2008, file photo, Jeffrey Epstein, center, appears in court in West Palm Beach, Fla.  At the center of Epstein's secluded New Mexico ranch sits a sprawling residence the financier built decades ago, complete with plans for a 4,000-square-foot (372-square-meter) courtyard, a living room roughly the size of the average American home and a nearby private airplane runway. 
Known as the Zorro Ranch, the high-desert property is now tied to an investigation that the state attorney general's office says it has opened into Epstein with plans to forward findings to federal authorities in New York.  (Uma Sanghvi/Palm Beach Post via AP, File)

Jeffrey Epstein

Deutsche Bank is scrutinising transactions that accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein conducted through the firm as prosecutors try to piece together his finances.

“Deutsche Bank is closely examining any business relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, and we are absolutely committed to co-operating with all relevant authorities,” Troy Gravitt, a spokesman for the bank in New York, said in a statement last week.

The German bank, itself a subject of unrelated government investigations, closed Mr Epstein’s accounts over several months earlier this year, Bloomberg reported this month. Mr Epstein was arrested on July 6 and charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy by federal prosecutors in New York.

The New York Times reported that the bank filed suspicious activity reports related to transactions in which Mr Epstein moved money out of the US.

Mr Epstein, 66, is fighting accusations that he sexually assaulted teenage girls from 2002 to 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of sex trafficking in minors and conspiracy and says he has fully complied with the law for the past 14 years.

Meanwhile, there are doubts about the extent of Mr Epstein's wealth and his status as a billionaire. According to an article in The New York Times, his "fortune may be more illusion than fact". A July 16 Forbes article titled "Court documents confirm Jeffrey Epstein is nowhere near a billionaire" stated that Mr Epstein has over $550 million in assets, according to a financial disclosure form filed by his legal team. The values of his properties, including a Manhattan mansion and two islands in the Virgin Islands, were confirmed by Mr Epstein's team for the first time at around $180m.

Indian Chairman of Wipro Limited, Azim Premji, smiles during a press conference held to announce the company's 2nd quarter results in Bangalore on November 2, 2012. India's third-largest outsourcing firm Wipro reported second-quarter net profit jumped 24 percent, thanks to stronger demand as customers sought to reduce costs in a weak global economy. AFP PHOTO/ Manjunath KIRAN (Photo by Manjunath Kiran / AFP)

Azim Premji

Azim Premji, who turned 74 last week, will step down as chairman of Indian conglomerate Wipro on July 30. Mr Premji will hand the reins over to his son Rishad, who is currently vice chairman and chief strategy officer, but will retain a board seat and hold the title of founder chairman.

In a company statement, Mr Premji said he plans to “devote more time to focus on our philanthropic activities”.

Mr Premji was the first Indian to sign up for The Giving Pledge, a campaign led by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. In March, he announced that he was donating the majority of his Wipro shares and other assets — worth $21bn — to his education-focused charitable foundation. As a result, his fortune, which had made him India’s second richest man, dropped to $5.2bn.

The tech magnate has led Wipro, India’s third-largest outsourcer, since 1966, when his father died and he gave up his engineering studies at Stanford University to take over the family’s cooking oil business. He diversified the company, called Western Indian Vegetable Products at the time, and in the 1980s entered the technology sector by manufacturing minicomputers and developing software.