Back in February, I had the ‘lightning strikes’ chance to interview Richard Branson for a second time. I first met with him on-board Virgin America at the time of the then-new airline’s inaugural LA/New York flight. This go around, on the precipice of his Virgin Galactic commercial launches, I chatted with him for a cover story for Delta Airlines’ Sky Magazine’s April 2014 issue, which is now out… Check it out below…
Richard Branson has the weight of the world on his shoulders, but he carries it as if it’s draped casually over one shoulder—befitting a man whose workday is punctuated by tennis and kite surfing on Necker, his private Caribbean island. And he will temporarily shrug off that weight when he and his children, Holly and Sam, are thrust into zero gravity at the edge of space during the inaugural launch of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo this year—making them the first private space-bound passengers in history.
After a series of delays, the press-fueled pressure is on. Such are the unpleasant side effects of trying to conquer this world and the next—from climate change to banking monopolies. “The program has taken longer than we’d expected,” the Virgin Group CEO admits dryly, “but it is rocket science, and rocket science, as we’ve discovered, is difficult.” It’s a challenge Branson is happy to take on—even for a mere 30 seconds of bobbing around in 4.5 g loads—as the long-term ramifications are vast.
Clearly, others are willing to do whatever it takes to hitch the ultimate ride as well—wheelchair-confined physicist Stephen Hawking chief among them. “[The space flight] is going to be challenging for him and for the people who go up with him,” says Branson. Environmental scientist and author James Lovelock will face his own set of hurdles going into space at 95. “He’s keeping himself as fit as he can to make sure he can enjoy it.” The list of luminaries who’ve paid the extravagant $250,000 ticket price for a chance to follow in Branson’s free-floating footsteps reads like the table of contents of an issue of Vanity Fair, which has added to the media scrutiny.
The British entrepreneur dismisses the notion that Virgin Galactic’s flights will merely be joy rides for billionaires, citing the history of the first transatlantic flights. “It cost the equivalent of $250,000 in the 1920s to fly across the Atlantic,” he says, “It was those people who could afford it who were the pioneers and enabled hundreds of millions of people to fly across the Atlantic in the years since.” The roughly 800 individuals who have bought Virgin Galactic tickets so far, concedes Branson, are “all wealthy people, but without them our program would never have gotten off the ground.” Besides which, he is already brainstorming a way in which thousands of everyday people, “cleaners, dustbin drivers, coal miners or whatever, will have a chance to go to space.” The modest goal: “to democratize space travel.”
For decades, space tourism has been positioned as the next big thing in travel—from journeys to the moon to space station hotels. Although Branson doesn’t yet have any plans to launch a trendy five star in the stars, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico, designed by British starchitect Norman Foster and his team, certainly looks the part. And that’s not all: “We will be building a very sexy spaceport hotel in New Mexico next to our spaceport,” Branson divulges.
In the meantime, a bit closer to home, Virgin will launch…
Read My Full Richard Branson Article on Delta Airlines’ Sky Magazine Website