TWENTY-THREE Australians are among the 600 people who have stumped up $US200,000 each to be among the first space tourists with Virgin Galactic. The flights are expected to take place at the end of next year after Virgin test flights prove successful and the passengers undergo basic space training.
Flights on Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six commercial passengers on a two and a half hour journey that will involve just six minutes of sub-orbital weightlessness 21,000m high. The idea is the latest brainwave of serial inventive British businessman Richard Branson who will be on the first scheduled flight with his family.
The entrepreneurial icon turned 62 in July but shows no sign of slowing down.
Where others see disaster, Branson sees opportunity. CNN called him part Warren Buffett, part PT Barnum and an “unflappable inventor and promoter”. He has interests on six continents, including airlines, express trains, mobile phones and credit cards.
Branson was always an independent sort. Aged 16 he set up a magazine to put out a student point of view. “I didn’t like the way I was being taught at school,” he said in 2006. “I didn’t like what was going on in the world, and I wanted to put it right.” Plenty of advertisers were willing to stump up to reach the cashed-up youngsters reading Branson’s mag and his career was up and running.
He advertised records in the magazine and started selling them himself at a London store at discounted rates under the brand “Virgin”. In 1972 he launched Virgin Records and was approached by a struggling artist called Mike Oldfield to listen to his demo. Other companies thought Oldfield’s instrumental work was unmarketable but Branson took a gamble. Oldfield’s Tubular Bells was the first record released by Virgin. The album took off after it was used as the theme music for the movie The Exorcist and by the end of 1973 it was a massive international success. Branson was always grateful to Oldfield and would later name one of his first Virgin America planes Tubular Belle.
Branson’s willingness to take a gamble paid off and he was at it again in 1976 when he signed the Sex Pistols. Johnny Rotten and his punk crew were controversial but they knew how to shift records. Though the band broke up before Branson made serious money out of them, they successfully changed Virgin’s old image as a hippie label. In their wake, he signed up XTC, The Skids, The Culture Club, The Human League, and Sting. Virgin’s income went from a loss of £900,000 in 1980 to a profit of £11 million in 1983. In 1992 Branson sold the music label to EMI for £0.5 billion.
By then, Branson had expensive airlines in his firing line. In his autobiography Losing My Virginity he explained why. “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them,” he said. “From the perspective of wanting to live life to the full, I felt that I had to attempt it.” Just as his assault on the expensive record industry worked, the over-regulated airline market was also ripe for picking.
His Virgin Atlantic Airways was followed by Virgin Blue in Australia in 2000. Virgin Blue took full advantage of Ansett’s collapse a year later to become the country’s second largest airline. Internationally there was Virgin Trains and Virgin Mobile and even Virgin Comics as Branson spread his net far and wide. Meanwhile there was a succession of world record attempts, film appearances and humanitarian initiatives as Branson the man competed with Branson the brand.
He was knighted in 2000 for “services to entrepreneurship” and he now gets rock star treatment wherever he goes. Last year, stadiums in Sydney and Melbourne were filled with people who forked out $300 a ticket to attend a “financial education summit” where Sir Richard was the star speaker. At an age when many are reaching for the pipe and slippers, Branson is still reaching for the skies and beyond.