Did you know that Richard Branson’s middle names are: Charles Nicholas? No neither did I. But it is a measure of just how famous he is that I feel that must be the only things I don’t know about him.
Branson holds a place in our national consciousness not because he is famous or because he is rich or because he is a gung-ho entrepreneur with his own island – but because he is all those things and yet seems to still be the sort of guy who would be perfectly happy to sit with you with a cup of tea and chat abut what was on TV last night.
What is remarkable about him is that he appears to be normal and unusual at the same time.
We are used to politicians wanting to grab the limelight and commenting on anything and everything but business leaders are much more reticent. Although arguably the leader of an international business has more influence than the average MP, we usually know little about these men and women of commerce.
There are a few exceptions and Richard Branson is one of them. Despite owning an airline, an island and a train service and now the beginnings of a Space Shuttle tourist service– he still appears one of us. Whatever you might criticise him for, having met him a couple of time, I feel that this is more than good PR – he is genuinely approachable, likeable and apparently normal. That in itself is an achievement.
At one point I was due to meet him on his island in the Caribbean but his diary didn’t match with our filming schedule and so despite both of us living in London, the only time we could find a date to meet was when he was attending an accountancy software conference in Chicago. I still wonder if I understood that correctly as neither did the accountancy get together seem to be glossy enough for him or for that matter, relevant.
We set up to meet him in a rather grander hotel than our filming budget normally allows. We couldn’t afford to actually stay there so we just got one room and set up the lights and the filming positions the night before our planned meeting and our sound man got to sleep in the posh hotel whilst the rest of us made it to the regular budget variety we normally stay in.
Having crossed the Atlantic by boat faster than anyone else and then crossed it again in a hot air balloon – Branson is now trying something even more adventurous. He s starting what he claims will be the world’s first spaceline and that is what we went to talk to him about.
I was surprised the meeting was going ahead after an explosion on a test flight had killed one pilot and seriously injured another, and Branson had a rather ill tempered interview on Channel 4 about it. I thought that may have meant he would cancel our interview. But as the date for our meeting neared, we heard nothing and assumed the interview was going ahead.
The Branson space company, called Virgin Galactic has two main projects: SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne. SpaceShip Two is an air-launched suborbital spaceplane designed for space tourism. It is manufactured by The Spaceship Company, a California-based company owned by Virgin Galactic. The SpaceShip actually looks like three executive jets whose wings have somehow been joined together. The bit that is actually launched is the central aircraft, which rockets away from the mothership once it has been carried sufficiently high into the sky.
The purpose of the SpaceShipTwo is to give its passengers an experiences of entering space and experiencing weightlessness which lasts approximately 6 minutes. Passengers will be able to release themselves from their seats during these 6 minutes and float around the cabin. It doesn’t come cheap of course, a seat or on the spaceflight costs $250,000.
Virgin Galactic’s other space project is LauncherOne. It ‘s designed to launch “smallsat” payloads into Earth orbit.
All of this sounds great fun but there is some scepticism of the benefit of extending tourism to space. But Richard Branson makes much of the benefits of bringing a new generation to the wonders not only of space but how launching oneself above the world gives people a new perspective on life back down on earth.
His engineers join the small ranks of people who, as astronauts, have sat in spaceships looking down on the blue globe to say it has shown them that there is more that unites the people of the world than divides them. It has, they say, shown them the fragility of the earth and how as a small speck in a an ocean of nothingness, we must do more to protect our planet.
Whilst NASA or the European Space Agency may be exploring space for science the Virgin venture SpaceShp is more a fun ride. It seems to some at least, a little frivolous, When I asked Richard abut the polluting side effects of such tourist trips he said that we had created more carbon pollution together in flying to the USA for the interview than a passenger would on a trip to space on his spaceship and my concern was misplaced.
Some may remain unconvinced about the value of space tourism. I am sure it would be a great, if dangerous trip. For those who go, I can see the appeal. But it worries me that apparently we need to leave the Earth to see its value.
People often say that travel expands the horizons. That can be true. But many frequent travellers are also amongst the most jaded I have met. It’s equally possible to understand the value of what you have by just pausing where you are and thinking about it.
Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic may be on the verge of helping create a new era. If they do, it will be big news. He will add his name to the many which history have seen as the big game changers. It is also true that many of those who have changed the world have been met with scepticism and criticism. Their achievement is to prove all the naysayers wrong and that is something Richard Branson is confident he can do.