UK businessman Sir Richard Branson has reiterated his claim that the first Virgin Galactic flight into space will take place later this year.
The launch date for the much-delayed project has been put back repeatedly from the original 2007 forecast, but the Virgin entrepreneur has confirmed he will fly with his children on the inaugural flight later in 2014.
Celebrities including Hollywood actors Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie have apparently reserved spaces to become space tourists, with tickets costing six figures and including brief periods of weightlessness during the two-hour trip to 100km above the Earth.
Branson says in an interview with the Guardian that the first unmanned test flight will take place soon.
The inaugural flight - due later this year - will be televised live by American broadcaster NBC.
'Without a doubt, Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television,' NBC said in a statement to the newspaper.
Last month Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo made its third rocket-powered supersonic flight in the Mojave Desert, soaring to a record 21,600 metres.
The company says the reusable space vehicle was carried by aeroplane to 14,000 metres the day before, and then released.
The craft used its rocket motor the rest of the way to reach its highest altitude to date. SpaceShipTwo and its two-member crew then glided to a safe landing in the desert north of Los Angeles.
Virgin Galactic says the 10-minute test flight moves the company closer to its goal of flying paying passengers into space.
No date has been set for the first commercial flight but hundreds of would-be tourists have made down payments of more than STG125,000 ($A232,000) for the chance to fly.
Virgin Galactic is owned by Branson's Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments PJS.
Branson: the man who fell to earth
So much depended on Virgin Galactic – not just the brand and the finances of Virgin but also Richard Branson’s credibility. Ever since the entrepreneur had bought into the space business in 2004, he had used the rocket to promote the Virgin brand.
Originally, Branson had committed himself to starting commercial space flights in 2007 with a rocket that would blast into space with six passengers.
“My gut feeling,” he explained, “was that we would get millions and millions of dollars of [free] publicity around the world by being the first people to take tourists into space.”
Branson had been trying to shift the focus of Virgin’s expansion from Britain to America, but so far a commercial breakthrough had eluded him.
Staging stunts for free publicity had been Branson’s prime weapon over the previous 30 years but his flamboyant feats in America – for Virgin Cola and Virgin Mobile – had barely registered. And after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and without being able to afford a multimillion-dollar advertising budget, Virgin Atlantic was also struggling.
Virgin Galactic, Branson hoped, would change everything, glorifying the corporation’s image.
For three years, he touted $US200,000 tickets to the super-rich, eager to experience four minutes of weightlessness and a glimpse of the globe before tilting back towards Earth.
Death in the desert
But there were delays. And in July 2007, there was a terrible and fatal explosion during an experiment at the project’s test site in the Mojave desert. Three rocket engineers who had been watching the test were killed.
To mask the technical problems, which continued to bug and delay the Virgin Galactic dream, Branson staged events to signal the imminence of take-off.
Usually, he hosted a celebration. Most were successful, but his party on December 7, 2009, in California was peculiarly timed.
Gusts of cold wind were blowing across the dark Mojave desert into the faces of 400 people waiting to see the twin-fuselaged plane WhiteKnightTwo trundle along the runway, with the rocket, SpaceShipTwo hanging underneath.
To shelter from the howling winds, the guests squeezed into a silver marquee.
The majority were journalists, but scattered among the crowd were prospective passengers.
Standing at the front was Branson. Peering into the darkness, he wanted to share the first public glimpse of the rocket – or the VSS Enterprise, as it was named – suspended beneath the catamaran-type plane.
The ceremony was carefully choreographed. Purple lasers and the booming soundtrack from Close Encounters of the Third Kind flashed and rolled across the runway.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was standing beside Branson as the guest of honour.
“Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier right here,” Schwarzenegger reminded his audience. Branson enjoyed the governor’s allusion to The Right Stuff heroes.
Thanking an “astronaut” for a mock ray gun, he encouraged everyone to drink Vodka martinis at the Absolut ice bar – a free promotion organised by Virgin’s publicists.
“Isn’t that the sexiest spaceship ever?” Branson cried out, as the plane appeared, crawling towards the marquee. “This is a truly momentous day,” continued Branson. “The team has created not only a world first, but also a work of art.”
Branson’s magic conjured for his guests a grandiose vision. Within a decade, competing spaceship companies would be shuttling into space from spaceports dotted across the globe. With unhesitating certainty, he described rockets flying passengers in 2019 from Los Angeles to Australia and on to the Middle East.
No fewer than 50,000 people, he promised, would be flown by Virgin during the first decade. Prices would be low and Virgin would be safer than the American space agency NASA.
Even his disclosure that his 92-year-old father and 85-year-old mother would accompany him on the first flight caused no surprise. He was the master of projecting total credibility.
Branson was acutely sensitive about the effect of his words on his audience. Although he often mumbled and looked downwards, his eyes rose at appropriate moments to judge his performance. His hesitations were interpreted charitably. Despite the unusual secrecy imposed upon the venture, no one showed any doubts about the inevitable eventual triumph of his project, which so far had cost $US400 million.
“There is this pent-up demand for access to space,” Virgin’s media-relations supremo Will Whitehorn chipped in during one of his employer’s pauses.
Virgin had collected $US42 million from about 300 people, Whitehorn said, including $US4 million within the last few months. Just weeks earlier, Virgin publicists had said that 430 aspiring astronauts had signed up.
The numbers do not appear to have been independently verified, and none of the hand-picked guests embarrassed Whitehorn by countering that Virgin’s income was insignificant compared to the billions of dollars NASA had offered other private operators for flights to the International Space Station.
(The agency, in a bid to reduce costs, was encouraging American entrepreneurs to develop cheap rockets to place satellites in orbit and to deliver payloads and people to the station. Profits would depend on building a reusable rocket or capsule, so space travel would resemble journeys by conventional aircraft; they would repeatedly take off, fly, and land back on a runway.)
To seal Virgin’s credibility, a publicist read the roll call of those who had signed up – by then a familiar list including Victoria Principal, the former Dallas star, Professor Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock, the 90-year-old environmentalist who had been promised a ride on the inaugural flight.
Although Lovelock preached a doom-laden warning that the world’s growing population was creating excessive carbon dioxide, he had spoken emotionally five months earlier about his anticipation of gazing down on “my first love Gaia, our blue planet, later this year”.
Lovelock had no reason to doubt Branson’s timetable for take-off. At the beginning of 2009, Whitehorn had told Flight International, “We are optimistic that we will be flying into space with passengers by the end of the year.”
Months later, Whitehorn was unashamed that his confident prediction remained unfulfilled.
He even repeated his unequivocal description: “It’s a trip of a lifetime. Reserve your place in space now. Travelling at over four times the speed of sound to a distance of around 360,000 feet above the Earth’s surface, experience weightlessness and enjoy the breathtaking view.”
Whitehorn and Branson should have known that their confidence was misplaced; Branson’s guests could not imagine the problems troubling Virgin’s designers as they battled difficulties including how to develop a bigger reusable rocket motor. Above all, firing the motor at full thrust for one minute had so far proved to be impossible.
But aspiration rather than certainty had attracted many invited to Mojave, including Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico. The politician’s trust in Branson had so far cost the state $US203 million in building America’s first spaceport.
The justification, said Richardson, was the guaranteed $US150 million income for New Mexico. Virgin’s version disputed that certainty: although the company had, at the end of 2008, signed a 20-year lease for using the spaceport, the terms allowed Branson to escape any commitment at the cost of a minuscule penalty.
Another guest at the party represented Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi. Principally owned by the emirate’s government and controlled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Aabar owned stakes in major German and Swiss industries and Manchester City Football Club.
Branson had visited the Gulf on many occasions to seek finance for Virgin’s projects, and in 2008 had despatched Virgin’s financial chief Stephen Murphy to elicit an investment in Virgin Galactic.
Murphy pitched a scenario of Abu Dhabi enhanced by a spaceport, a facility to launch satellites, an Earth Observation Space Centre and a technical college. At the end of July 2009, Aabar bought a 32 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic for $US280 million.
Five months later, WhiteKnightTwo, with VSS Enterprise suspended underneath, was rolling down the runway.“When I saw it,” Branson beamed later, “I was as near to being reduced to tears as is possible without actually crying.”
Moved by that confession, one journalist would ascribe those words to “Virgin’s gleaming entrepreneur, Richard Branson”. Branson’s credibility was enhanced by the announcement that Virgin had ordered five SpaceShipTwos and three WhiteKnightTwo mother ships.
“Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial spaceline,” Branson exclaimed.
“When will you do the first trip into space?” he was asked on Sky TV. “2011,” he replied with certainty. Virgin’s publicists later quietly explained to the interviewer, “Richard really meant 2012. That’s more likely.”
Three months later, Reuters headlined a dispatch from Los Angeles, “Virgin Galactic Almost Ready for Space Tourists”. Shortly after, the news agency reported the “first flight” of VSS Enterprise, the “spaceship”.
In reality, WhiteKnightTwo had taken off for a three-hour flight around Mojave with the spaceship strapped underneath, and then returned to the spaceport.
Outbursts of confidence had become necessary to balance the successes recorded by Branson’s competitors. XCOR, a small neighbouring space-flight outfit in Mojave, had announced a $US28 million contract with a South Korean company to take passengers and cargo into space.
More importantly, SpaceX, owned by Elon Musk, the inventor of PayPal, had launched a Dragon spacecraft from a Falcon 9. After orbiting the globe, the rocket was recovered from the Pacific. SpaceX’s safe return triggered Musk’s negotiations with NASA for a $US1.6 billion contract to shuttle 12 payloads to the International Space Station. In the future, he hoped to ferry astronauts to the orbiting station for $US20 million a trip, compared to the $US65 million charged by the Russians.
Unlike Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital tourism, Musk’s venture was a serious orbital business replacing wasteful government spending. Even Branson understood the distinction between Musk and himself.
“Now I know what $1 billion looks like going up in smoke,” he had texted after watching the launch of a NASA rocket from Cape Kennedy.
To prove Virgin Galactic’s commercial credibility, Branson needed NASA’s imprimatur. In late 2010, NASA distributed about $US270 million between Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Blue Origin – the four principal non-governmental space contractors. Virgin was not included. An emissary was despatched to extract a morsel and returned with a booking to fly a payload on SpaceShipTwo for $US4.5 million.
The gesture was announced by Virgin and embellished with legends about Branson’s past. Branson no longer regarded reminiscences to journalists about his remarkable career as a journey around his memory. Rather, his narrative had become a tool to project the brand.
The businessman coloured his story to refashion his image and justify his investments, not least in Virgin Galactic.
“It’s just like launching Virgin Atlantic,” he explained to a journalist comparing his journey into space with his love for new adventures. “I had a record company and I went to my partner and said, ‘I’m fed up flying on those awful airlines’ and listed the bad food, unsmiling crews, no entertainment and ‘horrible’ lighting. I said, ‘I want to buy a second-hand 747 and start an airline’.”
His stories were rarely consistent. The demeanour was hesitant, but his control never slipped.
A year later, he told another interviewer that Virgin Records “wasn’t focused on making money, but on an urge to do something new. I only tried to make money to pay bills.”
In truth, Virgin Records was created by Branson, his cousin and a group of friends, and they did enrich themselves. As some of his friends and employees discovered to their cost, their contribution was ultimately ignored by Branson.
Mother of invention
Warming to his theme, Branson presented another version of Virgin Atlantic’s invention to a Forbes interviewer. “The idea for Virgin Airways came when he got bumped from an American Airlines flight,” reported the magazine. “He was already wealthy so he went back to the UK, called up Boeing, and told them he’d like to buy a 747.”
He was asked, “What did you say your company’s name was again?” “Virgin,” he repeated. There was a pause. “Well, with a name like that, we certainly hope you plan to have this new enterprise go all the way,” the Boeing rep quipped.
The pay-off line in the Forbes article was: “Today he runs 300 different companies and he says he employs 60,000 people.”
Branson’s genius was his convincing performance. The story had gained something in the telling, as the idea for Virgin Atlantic was offered out of the blue to Branson by Randolph Fields, an American lawyer.
Branson snapped up the idea, so long as Fields did much of the preparatory work, including organising the lease and finance for a second-hand Boeing 707 – not a 747.
As an equal partner, Branson added important tweaks and organised a spectacular launch, including a vicious campaign against British Airways.
His second offensive was against Fields who, after being squeezed to accept a minority shareholding, accused Branson of double-crossing him to get total ownership of the airline. Branson repeatedly delayed signing a partnership agreement with Fields, who complained that Branson’s aggressive negotiation tactics were overwhelming. Branson denied Fields’s complaint, his manner simply disarming all but the most resilient complainants.
Performing as the genial English toff while promoting Virgin in America was a sturdy shield. Sceptics were appeased by Branson’s self-deprecation, mumbled politeness, diligence and unostentatious clothing. If all else failed, he deflected his vulnerability by hosting meetings on his houseboat moored in central London.
Boy’s Own folly
As a result, nothing critical was published in America, other than equating Virgin Galactic with a billionaire’s Boy’s Own folly.
And one occurred as Branson stood with Governor Richardson in Las Cruces in New Mexico in October 2010 as they watched another test. It stemmed from a report published in Geophysical Research Letters describing the environmental damage caused by Virgin Galactic.
For years Branson had asserted that space travel was “very environmentally friendly. The carbon cost of us putting someone into space will be about 30 per cent less than flying to London and back on a commercial plane”.
He added, “By launching in air, you save a lot of carbon from the ground blastoff.”
Martin Ross of the Aerospace Corporation described the opposite. Virgin Galactic’s fuel (nitrous oxide pumped into a tank lined with rubber and ignited, the burning rubber creating high pressure for propulsion), he wrote, caused more damage than conventional rockets.
The rubber particles that flew out of the hybrid motor during the flight would remain in the atmosphere for 10 years and cause the temperature of the Earth’s surface to increase.
By contrast, conventional rockets, burning hydrogen and oxygen, shed only debris on take-off, which fell to the Earth.
Whitehorn’s skill was to suffocate any comments about damage and delays by orchestrating a stream of good news from Los Angeles. Virgin, his publicity team announced, would be opening “up to 25 hotels within seven years” in America’s gateway cities; actor Robert Pattinson would be portraying Branson in a Hollywood biopic; Branson was producing his own Hollywood film about Christopher Columbus; and Virgin – via another project, Virgin Oceanic – would beat Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron in a record-breaking submarine dive to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
On the morning of April 11, 2011, even Branson’s critics were struck by a remarkable photograph. Against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Golden Gate bridge, a Virgin America Airbus was flying alongside WhiteKnightTwo with VSS Enterprise strapped beneath. The beautiful image of invincible Virgin – in both business and exploration – zoomed around the globe.
At midday, both aircraft were parked on the tarmac outside Terminal Two at San Francisco Airport. Some 600 guests, led by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, were celebrating the opening of the refurbished building, which would be used by Virgin America. Among those mingling with the local celebrities were Virgin Galactic’s pilots – and Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon. Even in Branson’s publicity lexicon, this was a moment to shine.
Virgin, he said, was trailblazing in space and as an airline. But just as important, Virgin was a leading campaigner for the environment. He was proud that together with Governor Schwarzenegger, he had stipulated that Terminal Two should be rebuilt to the highest environmental standards.
Virgin also cared for the poor. Virgin Unite and Galactic Unite, he said, would encourage underprivileged Californian children, helped by Virgin America pilots, to pursue careers in space exploration and aviation. “I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship and heading off into space.”
Cheers and clapping punctuated each statement. Not mentioned by Branson was a serious mishap during an unpowered flight by SpaceShipTwo in May. The rocket, reported Space Safety magazine, had stalled and, according to people watching from the ground, “dropped like a rock and went straight down” until the crew regained control.
“The tail stall was a nail-biter,” said an eyewitness.
Although George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, dismissed the scare as consistent with any new development, particularly in rocket science, professional designers repeated their doubts about the rocket’s mastermind and pioneering designer Burt Rutan, Branson’s partner in the Virgin Galactic venture.
Why, they wondered, had he not discovered the error earlier during computer tests?
Four months later, in September 2011, just before flying to New Mexico to celebrate the formal opening of the spaceport, Branson appeared on British news star Piers Morgan’s CNN TV show to declare victory in the space race.
Virgin Galactic’s first passengers, Branson told Morgan on air, would soon be passing through the Space Operations Center, a building designed by Norman Foster.
“The rocket tests are going extremely well,” Branson told Morgan, “and so I think that we’re now on track for a launch within 12 months of today.”
He did not mention the reports from New Mexico claiming that the building was two years behind schedule, and the news from Mojave about further setbacks to the rocket motor’s development.
“We are now very close to making the dream of suborbital space a reality for thousands of people at a cost and level of safety unimaginable even in the recent past,” Branson told the TV audience.
“Virgin Galactic has shown in the past few years how private-sector investment and innovation can lead to a rapid transformation of stagnant technologies.”
Worship of fantasy
Branson was taken at his word, even though he had recently disclosed his worship of fantasy: “Peter Pan is my favourite character, and I don’t really want to grow up. I’m just ridiculously lucky and just love to live my dreams.”
From Morgan’s studio, Branson headed to New Mexico in his jet. Branson’s publicists had arranged a stunt to entertain the 800 guests, some of whom owned tickets for the eventual ride, and to provide the media with a photograph: Branson would be abseiling down the side of Norman Foster’s massive glass windows while swigging a bottle of champagne.
Flights, Branson confirmed, would start the following year.
Richardson’s successor, Governor Susana Martinez, beamed, but as a Republican committed to cutting costs, she had misgivings.
Richardson’s original plan, she lamented privately, had been derailed. The expected 140,000 tourists had not materialised and the spaceport’s $US6 million annual costs had not been covered by charging mourners $1500 to launch a canister of cremated remains into space.
To limit the taxpayers’ exposure to a white elephant, Martinez instructed staff to halve spending and privatise the spaceport. An unforeseen problem had also arisen: other states like Virginia and Texas had also entered the spaceport business and were offering better terms.
But Branson’s euphoric speech glided over those doubts. In 2012, he said, two flights would taking off every day from the spaceport. One week later, David Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, revealed that passenger flights would not start until 2013. And, he added, there would be one flight every week, not two per day.
Branson’s mistake was ignored.
Doubters among an audience of journalists in early 2012 were silenced by the latest roll call of Hollywood celebrities who had allegedly bought $US200,000 tickets to fly: Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, Demi Moore and, more recently, Ashton Kutcher, reportedly Virgin Galactic’s 500th customer since 2004.
Only one complaint was formally recorded. Bassim Haidar, a Lebanese tycoon, wrote that although he had paid his deposit six years earlier, his chance for a flight was receding: “I can’t get Branson to say when we will fly. I’m very disappointed in him. He’s not the ‘can-do’ businessman he likes to project to the media.”
Instead of receiving details of his space flight, continued Haidar, Virgin sent him advertisements for other Virgin products – a game safari in South Africa, a hotel in Morocco and flights on Virgin Atlantic. To his disappointment, even the lunch arranged to meet Branson soon after he signed up was cancelled.
To divert attention from the delays, Branson approved a conference in Palo Alto, California, on February 26, 2012, focusing on the “Next Generation of Suborbital Researchers”.
Virgin’s publicists arranged for their test pilot, David Mackay, to be photographed with Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Although their meeting was brief, Armstrong did curtly endorse Virgin Galactic. “In the suborbital area,” he said, “there are lots of things to be done.”
Virgin Galactic, announced a company vice-president, “hopes” to perform the first rocket-powered test flight by the end of 2012, and “commercial flights will begin one or two years later”.
At best, Virgin Galactic was by then seven years late and, on its own account, was holding over $US40 million of deposits without paying any interest.
Branson’s genius was to profit from unchallenged ambitions.
In April 2013, he promised an audience of 5000 at a Las Vegas conference that he would be travelling to space with his family in early 2014.
Six days after that Las Vegas appearance and after yet another test, Branson had told Abu Dhabi radio euphorically, “I will be going up on the first flight, which I hope will be December 25th of this year. So maybe I’ll dress up as Father Christmas.”
Virgin Galactic had now taken $US80 million in deposits from 610 people; in June 2013 Justin Bieber had signed up as a passenger.
On May 17, 2013, there was another explosion during a test of a hybrid motor. The devastation resembled the scene in 2007, except this time there were no casualties.
A decade ago, Branson’s ownership of global music, media and airline businesses ranked him alongside the Silicon Valley billionaires as an inspirational star. But since then, his empire has shrunk and his relative wealth has diminished. He no longer owns any of the principal Virgin businesses.
In normal circumstances, a fading idol is of little consequence But Branson is special. For a new generation of aspiring entrepreneurs, the master still maintains his mystique.
Over 45 years, the deal-maker has hit gold, but then, like his rocket, his trajectory has faltered.
Branson’s next target for a space flight is later this year.
This is an edited extract from Branson: Behind the Mask by Tom Bower, Faber & Faber, $29.99, and distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin, available now. Since the book’s publication in Britain, Branson has told journalists that he will prove sceptics wrong “in the next few months”.
Quelle: The Australian Financial Review