Editor's Note: Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity successfully reached space for the first time on Dec. 13, 2018 during its fourth powered test flight. Read our full story here.
Richard Branson is a British entrepreneur who has founded multiple companies, including a private spaceflight venture, Virgin Galactic. Branson has a reputation as a risk-taker and self-promoter. He has arrived at press conferences in spacesuits; he drove a tank on New York's Fifth Avenue; he crossed the English Channel in an amphibious car; and he also did a base jump off a hotel. He often appears in his companies' commercials.
As a business person, Branson seeks to catch trends just as they are beginning. He registered the Virgin Galactic name in 1999, while the Ansari X-Prize for suborbital spaceflight was still under way. And as an unapologetic stuntman, Branson has signed himself and his children up for the company's first flight into space. While the date for that flight has been pushed back several times, Branson is aiming for 2015.
Branson had an entrepreneurial bent from a young age, which initially defied the wishes of his father. Ted Branson told his son to be a lawyer.
"Later, I felt awful because I had said to him just what my father had said to me. So, the next weekend, I walked him up and down the lawn once again and told him to forget everything I'd said," Branson's father reportedly said, according to a 2011 obituary in the Daily Telegraph,
But the younger Branson had other goals in mind. He dropped out of high school and launched a music business in 1972. He reportedly gave it the name "Virgin" because most of his employees were new to business.
"In 1977, we signed the Sex Pistols and we went on to sign many household names from Culture Club to the Rolling Stones, helping to make Virgin Music one of the top six record companies in the world," Branson wrote in his blog's autobiography.
Over the decades, Branson added Virgin-branded businesses in fields such as aerospace, mobile phones, cosmetics and trains. For his "services to entrepreneurship," Branson was knighted by Prince Charles in 2000.
Branson's interest in space also started early. He was just 19 when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. According to Virgin Galactic's website, Branson watched the landings on televisionalong with his family. He "determined that he too will one day experience the wonder of space," Virgin Galactic wrote.
However, getting to space would require a shift in technology and deep pockets on the part of Branson. As of March 2012, Forbes estimates Branson has a fortune of $4.2 billion from his various ventures. The technology changes simply took time.
Laying the foundation
In 1995, commercial rocket launching for satellites was still a young industry, and human spaceflight appeared to be a long way off – unless you were working for a government agency.
Still, Branson was mulling over how to get humans into space. According to Virgin Galactic, Branson had a conversation with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin concerning what technology would be best.
The two reportedly agreed that sending the spacecraft up from a plane launch – rather than from the ground – would be both cheaper and safer. Branson then directed Virgin employees to keep an eye on the advances of space technology.
Fast-forward to 1996, and the market began to change. The Ansari X-Prize was launched in a quest to award $10 million to the first non-governmental organization able to send a reusable spacecraft – with people aboard – into space twice in two weeks.
Branson registered the "Virgin Galactic" name in 1999 as he was searching for technology that could bring his brand into space.
Winning the X-Prize
Three years later, Branson figured he had found a winner. Some of his employees excitedly told him about Scaled Composites, which was building SpaceShipOne to compete for the X-Prize.
Scaled Composites was then solely receiving financing from Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. Branson quickly agreed to work with Allen's firm, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, to license SpaceShipOne's technology in preparation for a commercial fleet of spacecraft.
In late September 2004, Branson announced that Virgin would sponsor the SpaceShipOne X-Prize flights. Not only that, but if Scaled Composites won, Virgin was prepared to back the company's construction of commercial spacecraft.
"Virgin Galactic was now in a position to commence a program of work that would result in the world's first affordable space tourist flights in two to three years' time," the company announced. Registrations opened immediately.
Within days, the X-Prize competition was over. SpaceShipOne safely returned to Earth for the second time on Oct. 4, 2004. It was time to get to work on that spaceline.
Spaceflight, and especially human-rated spaceflight, is a complicated business. A fatal explosion and development delays pushed back the rosy projection of 2007 several times. The earliest estimated date for Virgin Galactic's flights is now 2015.
But through the delays, Branson has projected a positive image of spaceflight. His customers have hung on; only a few have backed out of the project, and there are at least 530 people who have made deposits for their $200,000 ticket to space.
Branson has also delivered regular updates of progress, often travelling to see the spacecraft as it takes shape. He periodically invites the paying customers of Virgin Galactic to take part in events, or to attend press conferences, to both keep them posted and to offer the vision of customer support.
"For such a complex and difficult endeavor, their progress is impressive," Branson wrote of his Mojave-based space workforce in November 2012, when he visited the facility to view the still-secret interior of the spacecraft.
"Their passion and commitment for starting the brand new sector of commercial space travel was utterly inspiring."
That same year, Branson announced he and his family would journey into space together on the first Virgin Galactic commercial flight.
"Holly and Sam will be joining me for a first voyage into space," he said at London's Farnborough Airshow in July 2012. "Going into space is a hard business. It keeps my mind buzzing."
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor