Suborbital personal spaceflight is being pioneered by Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, and Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. This blog post will focus on Richard Branson, his entrepreneurial roots that formed the basis of his fortune, and the founding and struggles of Virgin Galactic.

Forbes magazine, in its 2017 special edition on billionaires, reports there are today more than 2000 billionaires in the world. However, most them are obscure and they prefer it that way. Sir Richard Branson, however, just might be the most visible, public and audacious billionaires on that list. Immense success and wealth suits Branson very well. He very much enjoys the limelight. He is the quintessence of entrepreneurial success and an iconic example to millions of lesser entrepreneurs around the world.

Branson has an outsized ego that sees business opportunities across every imaginable industry. His prime holding company, The Virgin Group, has within it hundreds of companies within its control. He has experienced his share of failure, as every entrepreneur eventually does. For Branson, however, business failure is just a bump in the road, a setback to be learned from, as he proceeds forward.

“Do not be embarrassed by your failures. Learn from them and start again.” – Sir Richard Branson

Richard Branson was born 18 July 1950 in London. He had a strong entrepreneurial bent even in his teens when he launched Student magazine in 1967. He hit upon the idea of selling records by mail order and established Virgin Mail Order in 1970. This was his first business to use the name Virgin. This later evolved into Virgin Records. Branson and a partner built a recording studio in a large home in Oxfordshire. Virgin Records signed contracts with both legendary names and new groups.

Branson soon became a millionaire and his vision expanded. In the early 1980s, Branson learned of the attempt by Randolph Fields and Alan Hellary to establish a new airline. Fields asked Branson if he wanted to invest in this startup airline. After considerable thought and negotiation, Branson agreed. The original airline name was discarded and Virgin Atlantic was adopted. At first, there was just one jet—a Boeing 747. It flew between the UK and North America. The company acquired another jet, and within a year, the small airline was profitable.

Branson sought other ways to expand Virgin brand awareness. He participated in trans-Atlantic motor yacht racing and set international records. He also flew in hot air balloons across the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. During the latter 1980s and the 1990s, Branson expanded the activities of the Virgin Group across other industries and services.

The founding of Virgin Galactic

Sir Richard Branson with Burt Rutan announcing their partnership for commercial suborbital human spaceflight.

When iconoclast aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites designed and built WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne, it was to achieve the dream of commercial suborbital spaceflight. Rutan believed his efforts could be the impetus to take human spaceflight out of the government realm and start a revolution of private and commercial spaceflight.

I recently chronicled those efforts in a previous blog post.  My very first blog post covered the long development history of these very special air and spacecraft, the tragedy during a development flight, Virgin Galactic’s recovery from that, and the hope to finally begin its commercial flights with spaceflight participants in 2018.

However, in 2004, Sir Richard Branson was very enthusiastic about the potential for commercial suborbital human spaceflight. After Rutan had succeeded in winning the Ansari X-Prize for SpaceShipOne to successfully reach the 100-km threshold of space, Branson saw a bright future in commercial suborbital spaceflight. He wanted Virgin to be on the ground floor of this new possible travel experience.

With much publicity for which he is so famously known, Branson announced the agreement with Rutan, Scaled Composites and other investors to pursue this dream. Branson founded Virgin Galactic and optimistically promised commercial flights within a few years. Those years came and went, and Branson became discouraged, but would not abandon the effort.

What Richard Branson is doing is what he has always done. There are several hundred divisions and companies within the Virgin Group conglomerate. He has remained active with many of them, and delegates trusted personnel to manage them. He has much to keep him busy and take his mind off his high profile and glamourous Virgin Galactic. He is exercising delegation leadership to those running the day to day operations of Virgin Galactic.  He is committed to making sure his many other companies provide a real service and are profitable.

The Virgin Galactic VSS Unity

After the flight test accident in 2014 of its first spacecraft VSS Enterprise that cost the life of its co-pilot Michael Alsbury, Virgin Galactic cooperated with the FAA to find the root cause of the accident. The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived. Branson sincerely voiced sadness for the loss of life but stated such technological validation involved risk.

the VSS Unity, the second spacecraft built, has numerous improvements.

The Space Ship Company, a division of Virgin Galactic, began construction of a second spacecraft in 2012 and this became now the primary vehicle to complete validation flight tests. Branson was committed to seeing his company succeed in this new venture. Such setbacks were also typical of the first automobiles and even more so, aircraft in the early 20th century.

The second spacecraft completed was the VSS Unity, first showed to the public in February 2016. Improvements had been made to this second spacecraft. It completed its first captive flight with WhiteKnightTwo in September 2016. It has completed several release and glide tests so far in 2017. Virgin Galactic has not released the date for the first powered test flight of VSS Unity.

For Branson, Virgin Galactic falls far outside his preferred business model in many significant ways. To use gambling vernacular, Sir Richard Branson is “all in.” He remains committed to seeing this cutting edge suborbital spaceflight technology become routine, safe, profitable and an experience spaceflight participants never forget.

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