Richard Branson, the thrill-seeking British billionaire, founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 on the promise that a privately developed spacecraft would make it possible for hundreds of people to become astronauts, no NASA training required. And if a 2,500-mile-per-hour ride to the edge of space sounded off-putting, Branson also pledged to take the journey himself before letting paying customers on board.
Branson is the only one among the group of the so-called space barons, the group of space-loving billionaires that includes Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who has publicly pledged to take a ride in the near future aboard a spacecraft he has bankrolled.
Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, is working on a competing suborbital space tourism rocket. Musk’s SpaceX, however, is focused on transporting astronauts and perhaps one day tourists on days-long missions to Earth’s orbit.
Branson made dozens of media appearances over the past decade touting various deadlines for his extraterrestrial journey that didn’t hold true, in part because building a spacecraft almost always takes longer than expected and because SpaceShipTwo development was hampered by two tragic accidents and — more recently — a pandemic. Virtually every year since 2004 the company has claimed it would be flying customers in a year or so.
On Thursday, however, Virgin Galactic set yet another deadline for Branson’s flight: Sometime between January and March of 2021.
Notably, that declaration didn’t come from Branson. This time it came from Michael Colglazier, the recently installed CEO of Virgin Galactic whose goal is to guide the company as it grows from an engineering project in the California desert into a multibillion-dollar space tourism business. Colglazier was speaking not to reporters, but to Virgin Galactic investors who bought into Branson’s vision after the company made its stock market debut in late 2019. (The company’s valuation has grown to $4.5 billion, though it’s still burning through more than $20 million per month as it trudges through the final stages of SpaceShipTwo’s testing and certification process.)
Branson has less of a financial stake in Virgin Galactic’s success than he did 16 years ago, as well. He sold off about a quarter of his shares amid controversy and Covid-19-related financial issues at his airline, Virgin Atlantic.
But Colglazier’s message on Thursday made clear that Branson, who turned 70 this year, is still planning to be the poster child for Virgin Galactic’s assertion that almost anyone can safely make the trek.
Is it dangerous?
Proponents of commercialized human spaceflight have long argued that danger — and even tragedy —