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Billionaire Branson Prepares To Take One Small Step For Entrepreneurs In Space

On Sunday, billionaire Richard Branson will aim to finally deliver on 17 years of promises and take a seat on his own Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the V.S.S. Unity, as it climbs 55 miles to the edge of space for its first fully crewed test flight.

The launch, if successful, will make history in the burgeoning field of space entrepreneurship, and help boost Branson’s credibility in a sector in which some participants have not always believed he was going to make good on the repetitive promises that have surrounded both Virgin Galactic since 2004, and more recently, Virgin Orbit, the smaller satellite launch startup that spun off from Galactic in 2017. 

Branson has charted a very different trajectory from that of fellow space-focused billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. His Virgin Orbit successfully delivered its second satellite payload into low earth orbit last month. The Virgin Galactic launch on Sunday may be vindication for the serious sums of money Branson has spent on Orbit and Galactic during a period when his entire business empire was brought to its knees by the Covid lockdown, and the subsequent grounding of the Virgin Atlantic fleet since March 2020.

Risk, Reward

Will Whitehorn is the current president of U.K. Space, the industry trade association. From 2004 to 2010, Whitehorn served as president of Virgin Galactic before handing over the reins to George Whitesides, who left the role in March 2021. Whitehorn’s career with Branson started in 1987, working on the corporate side of the Virgin Group as it developed.

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Whitehorn says Branson’s “temerity” to undertake centrifuge training and “pull parabolas” in a MIG aircraft have given him a different perspective on how to approach space entrepreneurship. “And on top of that, he’s had a vision,” he says, adding, “he sees the simplicity in complex things—because he’s dyslexic—in a way that a lot of other people don’t.”

Whitehorn says that for Branson, Virgin Galactic is about “regularizing space” and “making the area outside of the atmosphere not something to fear.” Although there’s an element of competition between Virgin Orbit and SpaceX in the small satellite launch space, and between Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin in space tourism, Branson is driven by the business potential of both offerings, despite the billionaire competition, and the high cost of failure.

The real business opportunity for Galactic, says Whitehorn, will “eventually” come from rapid “hypersonic flight outside the atmosphere,” and the prospect of a new way to travel from the likes of New York to London in just a few hours. But for now there is value in just getting up to space. “It’s about NASA scientists actually being able to go up [to suborbital space] with their experiments . . . and actually combine molecules in the six minutes of zero-g they’ll get. All of these systems are enabling an industrial revolution that has to happen for one simple reason: If we cannot develop industrially outside of the atmosphere, we’re absolutely screwed,” he said, in a nod to the many green environmental reasons beginning to emerge for space entrepreneurialism.

Whitehorn describes Branson as “a very concerned environmentalist” who wants to “industrialize outside of the atmosphere.” (That’s despite his ownership stake in a large, polluting airline, Virgin Atlantic.) “The competition is not a bad thing. I think if Richard can pull this off . . . [and] beat Jeff [Bezos] into space, good luck to him. Jeff won’t resent that.”

However, a tweet from Blue Origin  on Friday suggests otherwise, implicitly criticizing Galactic’s offering for not hitting the “the internationally recognized Kármán line”—the defined boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, and suggesting that Branson’s windows are small, while Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have “the largest windows in space.” In a now-deleted tweet, Nicola Pecile, a test pilot at Virgin Galactic, described the tweet as a “pi**ing contest” that was “childish” and “really embarrassing.”

Chad Anderson, a managing partner of Space Capital, an early-stage venture capital fund, tells Forbes that for Virgin Galactic, having claimed to be on the cusp of a launch,“later this year, every year, since 2007” there is “added pressure of being a public company.” He says that new Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier, who hails from Disney, “likely contributed to a more disciplined test program that got them to this point.” 

Anderson champions the value that entrepreneurial competition has brought to the business of space. “[I] find it fascinating that both Galactic and Blue [Origin] have each been working toward this moment for 20 years and that they are both on the cusp of realizing their ambitions at the same time. Competition drives progress and we’re witnessing that firsthand now.”

At the close of markets on Thursday, Branson’s estimated net worth had risen nearly $450 million in one day to $6 billion, boosted by excitement and a change of sentiment over his biggest asset, Virgin Galactic. Shares of Virgin Galactic have risen nearly 20% since July 1, when Branson announced he would be heading to space on July 11.

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