Welcome to this week’s edition of The Intelligence Brief… the 21st century space race has heated up in recent days as billionaire Richard Branson made it to space. In light of this, we’ll be looking at 1) the British businessman’s historic flight and 2) the long, hard (and costly) road that brought him here, as well as 3) the controversy Virgin Galactic’s successful flight has caused, and 4) what’s next for Branson and his competitors as we move toward future commercial operations in space.
Earlier this week, English adventurer and businessman Richard Branson joined the 50-mile-high club as he flew to the boundary marking outer space aboard his own Virgin Galactic space plane. In doing so, Branson managed to beat Amazon founder and former CEO Jeff Bezos, who plans to make a similar flight, by only a few days.
Although Branson’s flight was short, it was both historic and more than two decades in the making. The spaceplane, dubbed the VSS Unity, had flown nearly two dozen test flights prior to Sunday’s launch, carrying several Virgin employees to space prior to Branson’s own first flight to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.
Branson’s recent trip is notable on account of making him not only the first billionaire founder of a space travel company to have actually gone into space himself (or at least close to it, depending on who you ask), but to have done so traveling aboard one of the aircraft offered by his own ambitious enterprise.
Prior to launch, Branson posted photos of himself online with Elon Musk, noting that it was good to start his eventful day with a “friend.” As founder, CEO, and chief engineer at his own space related enterprise SpaceX, Musk is also in the running with Branson and Bezos to carve out a place in the new 21st century commercial space race.
A Long Road of Setbacks
It was a big moment for Branson, whose company, founded in 2004, has seen numerous setbacks in the years leading up to this week’s successful flight.
An optimistic Branson had stated is early as 2004 that “Virgin Galactic will open for business by the beginning of 2005 and, subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals, begin operating flights from 2007.” However, just three years after its founding, an incident involving an explosion resulted in the deaths of three of the company’s engineers.
“I’m very confident that we should be able to meet 2011,” Branson said again in 2009, now four years past his initial projected launch date. Like before, this was followed by tragedy after an accident in 2014 destroyed a Virgin Galactic aircraft and killed its test pilot.
Following the 2014 incident, Virgin Galactic underwent a system reset, all but rebuilding its operation from the ground up. “We are hopefully about three months before we are in space,” Branson finally said in 2017, adding that in another three months thereafter he planned to be there himself. Six months, and another three and a half years later, these goals have now finally been reached.
In recent years, the billionaire has admitted that he would not have gone forward with what have turned out to be his exceedingly costly space aspirations, had he known at the outset what he has learned along the way. Now, with the passing of seventeen years since he founded Virgin Galactic, the road to success has turned out to be much longer than Branson anticipated.
Branson had hardly returned from the historic flight before his critics had gone on the attack, arguing that in addition to what he has already lost on Virgin Galactic, he should not have spent the money on going to space with so many pressing concerns remaining here on Earth like the coronavirus pandemic, economic inequality, and others.
“That’s the face of stock dilution. RIP for now $SPCE shareholders,” read one response to a Tweet posted from the official Virgin Galactic Twitter account with a short video of Branson and his crew while in space.
“Too much hell on Earth right now to have this make me have a WOW moment,” read another Tweet, adding that “if his empathy was measured by his dollars, he could help save the world. Now. But his childhood dreams are different than those with hearts…”
Branson later acknowledged some of the criticisms, while defending his ambitions to make travel into space more accessible, and affordable.
“I 100% agree that people who are in positions of wealth should spend most of their money, 90% or more of their money, trying to tackle these issues,” Branson said during an appearance on TODAY earlier this week, adding that “we should also create new industries that can create 800 engineers, and scientists who can create wonderful things that can make space accessible at a fraction of the environmental cost that it’s been in the past.”
In a statement from Virgin Galactic, Branson wasn’t merely joyriding during Sunday’s flight, stating that the adventurer relied on his “observations from his flight training and spaceflight experience to enhance the journey for all future astronaut customers.”
According to a statement at the company’s website, Virgin Galactic plans to operate “a regular schedule of spaceflights for private individuals and researchers from our operational hub at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose built commercial spaceport.”
Describing its goal as an effort to “democratize space,” the company says it will also be backing STEM initiatives, as well as its own Galactic Unite initiative and several other outreach programs. Virgin Galactic will also plan to offer a limited number of tickets in the days ahead, to the first wave of citizen astronauts who will take to space aboard the company’s commercial spacecraft.
In advance of his own trip to space, Jeff Bezos may have hoped to offset some of the criticisms Branson received as he made an astounding $200 million dollar donation to the National Air and Space Museum, making it the largest single donation made to the Smithsonian Institute since its establishment. In the coming days, the Amazon founder will make his own trip into space, fulfilling what he and Branson have both referred to as a lifelong dream.
Meanwhile, Branson’s friendly competitor Elon Musk continues to focus on placing spacecraft into orbit, an objective Branson also has with Virgin Galactic’s sister company, Virgin Orbit, and Bezos aims to do with its forthcoming New Glenn rocket. Although the Bezos and Branson are still trailing behind Musk with their orbital aspirations, there has never been a clearer indication that the space race is heating up, and despite the setbacks each company has faced, things are moving forward at an ever-quickening pace.