Richard Branson’s 17-Year Journey Into Space: How The Virgin Founder Became First Billionaire To Fly Own Rocket

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Alex Knapp   Forbes U.S. Staff

Richard Branson’s 17-Year Journey Into Space: How The Virgin Founder Became First Billionaire To Fly Own Rocket

Photo: Richard Branson Twitter

On Sunday, the billionaire daredevil pulled off his biggest stunt of all - making the journey to outer space on his company’s spaceship.

There was a buzz of energy at Spaceport America, the giant installation in the desert near Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, that the state hopes will one day be a space tourism destination. Even though it was early morning, there was a DJ playing music for a crowd that included celebrities, moguls and many people who’d years ago purchased a ticket to one day take their own trip to space. The livestream broadcast online was hosted by talk show host Stephen Colbert and the guests were serenaded with a new song by singer-songwriter Khalid. 

Shortly after 10:30am ET in the morning, Virgin Galactic’s plane VMS Eve took off from the spaceport, carrying the spacecraft VSS Unity and its passengers on its belly. When it reached an altitude of 45,000 feet around 50 minutes later, it dropped the Unity, which powered its own rocket engines and began its ascent into space. Once it reached the apogee of its flight, the spacecraft slowly made its way back to Earth, its pilot expertly gliding it back down to a landing - yes, gliding. The soft landing was made without any engine power at all at 11:40am.   

“Having flown to space, I can see how Virgin Galactic is the spaceline for Earth,” Branson said after his flight. “We’re here to make space more accessible to all, and we’re going to turn the next generation of dreamers to the next generation of astronauts.”

The successful spaceflight, which took Richard Branson and his crew over 50 miles above the Earth’s surface and enabled them to experience weightlessness for 8 minutes, wasn’t the first time a billionaire went to space. But it was the first time a billionaire did so on his own spacecraft. And the event was the culmination of a journey that began 17 years ago.  

It was in October 2004 that the Ansari X-Prize, which offered up $10 million to anyone who could build a reusable spacecraft that made two trips to space within 14 days, was claimed by Mojave Aerospace Ventures. The spacecraft, designed by Burt Rutan and backed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, successfully beat out 25 other teams. Shortly after winning the competition, the company licensed out its technology to Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic to take that technology to build a larger spacecraft to operate as a commercial space tourism operation. 

Shortly after its founding, the company started selling tickets to its flights at a price of $200,000 a pop (which was raised to $250,000 in 2013). Over 600 people have bought tickets for the trip so far. Though an always ambitious Branson began promising that commercial operations would begin as early as 2009, the company suffered a number of serious setbacks on its path to the stars that delayed things until the present moment. In 2007, a rocket engine test killed three people and critically injured more. In 2014, the company’s first spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise, was destroyed during a test flight that killed one of its pilots and hospitalized the other, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, the crash was caused by an air braking system being deployed too early, and criticized both Virgin Galactic’s contractor, Scaled Composites, and the FAA for not considering the potential for human error resulting in a crash. 

The company kept pushing forward, however. Its second spacecraft, the VSS Unity, which took Branson to space on Sunday, was rolled out in 2016 and began testing. The first powered flight of the Unity was achieved in spring of 2018, and in December 2018 the craft made its first successful journey into space. The following year, Virgin Galactic became the first publicly-traded space tourism company after merging with special purpose acquisition company Social Capital Hedosophia, which was founded by Reddit stock guru Chamath Palihapitiya, who now serves as Chairman of Virgin Galactic. (The stock closed at $49.20 on Friday and currently holding steady in after hours trading.)

Sunday’s successful flight is the second in a series of test flights intended to get the company ready for its first commercial passengers, who are expected to start flying in 2022 if all goes well. Each of the four crew members in the passenger compartment, including Branson himself, were working while they made the trip. Sirisha Bandla, the company’s VP of research operations, conducted an experiment on behalf of customer the University of Florida. Lead operations engineer Colin Bennett was evaluating cabin equipment and procedures while chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses oversaw the other testers. And Sir Richard? His job was to evaluate the experience itself, not only in-flight but also the training and preparation experience. 

Those evaluations will be needed soon. In June, the FAA expanded Virgin Galactic’s license to allow customers to fly on its spacecraft, a key regulatory milestone and the company has a backlog of over 600 experiences to fulfill. Still, the company has a long way to go before realizing the success of Branson’s other businesses like Virgin Airlines. A recent report from Morgan Stanley estimates Virgin Galactic won’t achieve positive free cash flow until 2028, though it anticipates that by 2030 the company will be seeing revenues of about $1.3 billion. 

For Branson, however, the real victory is the culmination of this 17-year-old dream.

“It’s the experience of a lifetime,” he said while onboard the spacecraft. “And now I’m looking down on a beautiful spaceport. Congratulations to everyone for creating such a beautiful, beautiful place. Congratulations to all our wonderful people at Virgin Galactic and their 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far.”

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Alex Knapp   Forbes U.S. Staff

I'm a senior editor at Forbes covering healthcare, science, and cutting edge technology.