Fired-up Richard Branson prepares for biggest test as space dream draws near

The billionaire's Virgin Galactic endeavour expects to launch tourists into space next year

Virgin's Richard Branson attends a news conference after landing at the Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, October 23, 2019 REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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Richard Branson plucks a dried grasshopper from a jar, takes a bite, and pronounces the insect surprisingly tasty before slurping down a vegan yoghurt and offering to trial the concoction on Virgin Atlantic Airways flights.

The UK billionaire, a serial creator of companies spanning record labels to airlines to fizzy drinks and bridal gowns, is in his element. He’s meeting with fellow entrepreneurs at a so-called “Pitch to Rich” session, where the contest’s winner gets a business-class flight to London for a week of hot-housing at Virgin’s own innovation hub.

Virgin Galactic has been a difficult baby and it's gone through some tough teenage years, but we're now close to creating something very special.

The event speaks to the appetite for fresh ideas that still drives Britain’s best-known businessman in his seventieth year. Mr Branson’s own contribution to human endeavour is about to enter a critical phase as Virgin Galactic, the prime focus of his attention for 15 years, prepares to launch the first tourists into space next year.

Mr Branson will ring the opening bell in the New York Stock Exchange on Monday as Virgin Galactic becomes the first space-launch company to go public

The Englishman said he’s trying to quell his mounting anticipation about the coming space voyage given previous delays, including a hiatus following a crash that killed two test pilots in 2014. Mr Branson has pledged to personally be aboard the first public space shot.

“Virgin Galactic has been a difficult baby and it’s gone through some tough teenage years, but we’re now close to creating something very special,” he says. “There need to be more test flights this year and I’m trying not to get too carried away until a few months before the launch, but I’m very excited.”

The space flight is just one of a series of planned milestones in a 12-month period that’s set to define the Virgin Group’s future. With his iconoclast approach intact even after five decades in the business of disruption, Mr Branson also has big plans for his airline, a satellite launcher and a cruise-ship business he plans to introduce next year, among other projects.

Boeing's future-technologies arm has pledged $20 million (Dh73.45m) for a minority stake in Virgin Galactic, a business finding itself in increasingly hot competition for billionaire-funded space travel. founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company plans to take payloads and tourists to the edge of space on an 11-minute flight, while Tesla chief executive's Elon Musk’s SpaceX has also joined the race with a pledge in to send passengers to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Virgin Galactic is interested in developing hypersonic airline flights that would slash global travel times. While the dream of linking London with Australia in just a few hours remains distant, Galactic’s technology could be more readily adapted to link far-flung US cities, Mr Branson predicts.

The billionaire speaks in glowing terms of 35-year-old Virgin Atlantic, the airline that took the brand from a quirky UK record label known for signing the Sex Pistols to a globally recognised force.

Virgin Galactic's manned space tourism rocket plane SpaceShipTwo lands at Mojave Air and Space Port after returning from a space test flight in Mojave, California, U.S., December 13, 2018. Virgin Galactic/Handout via REUTERS.  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO ARCHIVES, NO SALES.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. The company will be first space tourism firm to be publically listed. Reuters

Among Mr Branson’s travel frontiers is India, where he will seek to crack the burgeoning travel market with a service to Mumbai that kicks off this month. A route to Sao Paulo will follow next year as the carrier steps up competition with arch-rival British Airways, emboldened by a partnership with Delta Air Lines.

In Delta, Virgin Atlantic now has an ally with shoulders broad enough to take on British Airways after years of often bitter competition — and courtroom clashes — with the larger carrier. That push could gain traction with an increase in flights following the opening next decade of a new runway at London’s Heathrow airport. Mr Branson says he’s been buoyed by the hub’s positive reaction to his calls for a shake-up to the slot-allocation systems to allow his airline to become a second UK flag carrier.

(L to R) Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Commercial director of Virgin Galactic Stephen Attenborough watch a presentation  at an event October 16, 2019 in Yonkers, New York.  At the event Virgin Galactic and Under Armour unveiled the world’s first exclusive spacewear system for private astronauts. / AFP / Don Emmert
Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson unveiled the world’s first exclusive spacewear system for private astronauts. AFP

He admits to a sadness surrounding the imminent reduction of his majority stake in Virgin Atlantic to a 20 per cent holding, saying he’s taking the step reluctantly to safeguard the carrier’s future in an industry increasingly dominated by a handful of airline groups linked by cross-shareholdings and cost and revenue sharing

“It’s not a deal that I particularly like doing because from talking to the staff they’d quite like the airline to remain slightly more personal,” he says. “But I’ve promised them I’m going to remain very involved.”

Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson demonstrates a spacewear system, designed for Virgin Galactic astronauts, at an event October 16, 2019 in Yonkers, New York.  At the event Virgin Galactic and Under Armour unveiled the world’s first exclusive spacewear system for private astronauts. / AFP / Don Emmert
Mr Branson has pledged to personally be aboard the first public space shot. AFP

Next year will also see the launch of the new Virgin Voyages cruise line, with the first ship commencing sea trials in the Mediterranean before being based in Miami, with three more to follow. Mr Branson is pitching the business at people who would normally hate such a holiday — “like me,” he says — and has asked managers to submit their own list of bugbears, headed by his own dislike of buffet dining, which he plans to eliminate.

Also in the pipeline are Virgin Orbit’s first full “drop and fire” launch from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 in January as the satellite-deployment start-up heads towards its commercial debut.

Then there’s the opening of Virgin Hotels in four US cities that will more than double the size of a business founded as a bet on real estate after the 2008 crash, followed by the construction of Virgin Hyperloop One’s link between Mumbai and Pune, marking the world debut of technology that shoots passenger pods through a tube at near-supersonic speeds.

At the Pitch to Rich session, Mr Branson regales the audience with his one-man promotional campaign for the Virgin brand. They’re familiar stories for many — death-defying stunts in hot-air balloons and yachts, getting arrested at Heathrow after painting a Virgin logo on the tail of a BA Concorde, crushing Coca-Cola cans in a Sherman tank in Times Square to promote Virgin Cola — but all are told with a renewed energy.

One thing seems certain: the man with the broad smile and surfer-dude wavy mane isn’t about to step back from the fray.

“I enjoy every minute of my life and the variety of what we do,” he says. “True, I sometimes glance in the mirror and wonder who the hell that is looking back. But I don’t feel any older and I want carry on and use the experience that I have.”