Spaceflight

Branson quietly admits 20 year space mission was going the wrong direction

By Oliver Smith 3 March 2017
Photo from Virgin.
Summary

Awkward.

Forget Elon Musk, throughout the 2000s there was another business tycoon leading the charge of mankind into space.

As far back as 1999 Richard Branson made his first public comments that his Virgin empire would set its sights on the stars for their next business venture.

“I hope in five years a reusable rocket will have been developed which can take up to 10 people at a time to stay at the Virgin Hotel for two weeks,” Branson told reporters at the time.

Sadly, nearly 20 years later, Branson just admitted that his plan to put people into space was the wrong strategy.

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) touches down in the Mojave Desert.

Galactically mistaken

Branson’s Virgin Galactic brand was first registered before the turn of the new millennium – back when we were all panicking about the ‘millennium bug’ – with a clear mission to fly people into space.

In the following decade some 700 rich and famous VIPs paid up to $250,000 a ticket to book their places on the first trips, with combined ticket sales of some $50m.

Unfortunately jumping straight to manned space flight was much harder than expected.

Galactic launched a couple of sub-space (not actually outer space) test flights, one of which resulted in the death of a pilot in 2014, and repeatedly delayed the schedule of when Branson would actually take tourists into space.

Oh and he got the US state of New Mexico to pay $220m for him to build a spaceport in 2011… that’s never been used.

The last launch date pegged by Branson was 2015, nearly two years ago now.

SpaceX launch pad.

Musk’s mission

In the nearly 20 years since Branson started Galactic, Tesla founder Elon Musk has overtaken him in almost every way.

Musk’s SpaceX business has focused instead on getting ‘stuff’ into space first, winning lucrative contracts with NASA to become their key partner to take deliveries to the International Space Station.

SpaceX has generated billions from the contracts, while it continued to perfect its technology.

Now SpaceX has revealed its ambitious plan to take people to Mars by 2025 and to launch a return flight around the moon next year.

And crucially Musk has gained everyone’s confidence with a strong track record of delivering ‘stuff’, fairly safely, into outer space over the last few years.

About-turn

Yesterday, after nearly 20 years of pursuing his mission to take people into space, Richard Branson quietly admitted that hadn’t been the right strategy.

“Let’s open space to many more missions by dramatically decreasing the price of each flight… but with satellites instead of people,” said Branson as he unveiled Virgin Orbit.

Orbit is a new business arm that will, you guessed it, focus on launching commercial satellites.

Competition in space travel is undoubtedly a good thing, Musk’s SpaceX has dramatically reduced the price of launching stuff into space by aggressively bidding for NASA contracts.

Yesterday it was also revealed that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is aiming for his own space business, Blue Origin, to launch deliveries to a future human settlement on the moon.

The silver lining is that if Branson’s about-turn results in more space businesses competing to make spaceflight ever-cheaper for mankind, that’s gotta be a good thing.