VIDEO: Space Cowboy, Sir Richard Branson
September 23, 2014 • Blog Post • By Chuck Salter, Fast Company Content Studios
A Ticket to Space: Sir Richard Branson on the future of transportation and why Virgin Galactic is no mere flight of fancy.
Sir Richard Branson is a little out of breath. On a recent afternoon, the irrepressible 64-year-old founder of Virgin Group has just returned from kite-surfing in the Caribbean. He raced from Necker Island, his private isle in the British Virgin Islands, to Anagarda, and back - 17 miles each way. "It's longer than I normally do", he says. Branson has plenty of reasons to be breathless these days. Virgin America, his third airline, is about to go public, and there are plans to do the same with other businesses within his $24 billion-plus empire. But the venture that thoroughly engages his imagination-and embodies his ambitionis Virgin Galactic. Billed as the worlds first "spaceline", it is designed to lead the next frontier of transportation: spaceflight for civilians. Starting, of course, with Branson himself. "Some time this December", he says, "I'll be going to space". Here, he weighs in on the future of flight and what it takes to build a company like no other.
You've started three commercial airlines before. How is creating an airline that will travel into space different?
In the first instance, were buying planes from Boeing and Airbus, and then were trying to revolutionize the industry by the experience people have when they get on board those planes. Its getting every single detail right. But with the space project, were literally building this incredible spaceport in New Mexico. Were building our own spaceships. Were building our own rockets.
You've spent 10 years creating Virgin Galactic. What has been the hardest part?
A NASA spaceship costs billions to take people to space. We're having to do it at a fraction of that price, and we want to make sure its environmentally friendly. So its a technological challenge and a design challenge, and were having to innovate. Building rockets is as difficult as rocket science meant it to be. It has taken longer than wed expected. But we got there. We had the final rocket tests a month ago, successfully.
Your spacecraft don't look like a space ship or rocket ship at all. Why is that?
We built Virgin Galactic in the shape of an airplane to give people the experience of becoming an astronaut while being more comfortable than the traditional astronaut. We want to make sure that the people who fly on our craft have the experience of a lifetime, so that they come back again or tell their friends its something theyve just got to do.
For now, Galactic is focused on offering a way to experience space and to feel weightlessness. How do you expand the business and transform orbital spaceflight into a legitimate travel option?
In time, our engineers dearly want to be able to do point-to-point, intercontinental travel with bigger versions of our Virgin Galactic craft.
How fast will they fly?
If it goes according to plan - there are still a lot of ifs at this stage - we would go the speed of orbit, so we'd be traveling about 18,000 miles an hour, which means youd be able to get to anywhere on Earth in round about 40 minutes on the longest journeys. Whether we see that in my lifetime, well have to see.
You're getting people to trust a new airlinethe first spacelinewith flying them at 18,000 miles per hour. Sounds risky. How big is the market?
We've already got 800 people who've signed up. If our market research is correct, something like eight out of 10 people in this world would love to go to space. So the market is gigantic. But they need to be able to afford it, so its up to us to make it affordable to a much greater number of people. And obviously they want a return ticket, and so weve got to make absolutely sure that we run a safe ship. If we can deliver on those two things, the restriction will be whether we can build enough spaceships to accommodate the demand. I suspect we wont be able to keep up with demand. But thats a good problem.
How much does a seat cost?
In the short term, the price will remain around $250,000. But in the longer term, we will be able to get that price down so that large numbers of people will become astronauts and have the experience of a lifetime.
Why is experiencing space so compelling to you?
When I was doing one of my hot-air balloon trips when we were trying to get around the world, I remember crossing Mount Everest and K2 and all those southern Russian states and seeing the sheer beauty that still exists on the Earth. Its just breathtaking. Theres a wonderful book called The Overview Effect.
I've heard youre a fan. This is the book where the astronauts reflect on seeing Earth from space.
Exactly. Pretty well every one of those astronauts have come back and made a real effort to make a difference here on Earth. I think the more people who can have that experience, the better. Weve actually set up a Galactic Unite Foundation with the 800 astronauts who have signed up. The idea is to enable kids who can't afford to get science degrees to get them. And secondly, to buy chunks of earth and sea and rain forest, so that when our astronauts are up there, they can literally look down and say "That is protected, thanks to my being in space."
Other than space tourists and globe-trotters, what are the other revenue opportunities?
We'll do satellites separately. We'll use the same mother ship that launches the space ship, but well use it to launch rockets to take satellites into orbit. Well be able to put up big arrays of satellites at a fraction than in the past. That will bring down the cost of telephony and mobile phone and Wi-Fi access, enabling the 2.5 billion people who don't have it to get it for very little.
In your new book, The Virgin Way, you say that innovation often comes from recycling old ideas. Is there a transportation idea you want to see recycled?
I think it would be lovely if the airships of the past could come back and people could travel around Africa in Zeppelins. Nowadays, you can use helium, not hydrogen, so they neednt burst into flames. There is just something very romantic about being able to fly down to 50 feet over the game reserves and then go back up and then drop down over Victoria Falls. The romantic in me would quite like the clock to be turned back as well as the clock to be sped up.
What technology could have a major impact on transportation in the near term?
I hope that governments and business together can be bold on renewable energy. If, in America, they could get a hundred massively big solar parks built, that would have a dramatic effect on the environment. Hundreds of thousands of jobs can be created if one goes all out on this. If you listen carefully, you might hear a digger in the background here. Were building a solar park right in front of me as I speak.
You're kidding. Perfect timing for our conversation.
The digger is not very clean, but the solar park will be. In a years time, this island will be 100 percent carbon neutral.
*Branson now estimates the first flight will be in Spring 2015.
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