FROM V79 THE TRAVEL ISSUE, FALL 2012
THE KNIGHTED KINGPIN OF GLOBAL TRANSPORT WITH AN UNQUENCHABLE THIRST FOR EXPLORATION THRIVES ON A GOOD CHALLENGE. NEXT STOP: THE GREAT BEYOND
Photography Jack Brockway
Text Patrik Sandberg
Even if you’re aware of Sir Richard Branson, you might have forgotten that he began his career in music. “I flew on a lot of other people’s airlines, because I had record businesses all over the world,” recalls the magnate chairman of the Virgin Group and reported fourth-richest man in the United Kingdom. “I hated the experience and I felt we could do better. So we started out with one secondhand 747 flying between London and New York, to put our toe in the water, so to speak.” Since then, over the course of 25 years, Branson and co. have built four airlines on four different continents, all part of his multinational lifestyle conglomerate that boasts more than 400 companies worldwide.
Branson’s fortuitous business career began quite expectedly during his high school years, when he successfully launched an independent magazine entitled Student. He quickly branched out by advertising a mail-order record service, run out of the crypt of a London church. By offering LPs priced higher at local outlets, the endeavor—dubbed Virgin by Branson and a friend due to their inexperience in sales—paid enough that he could open his own record shop in 1971 on Oxford Street. The label Virgin Records came a year later, and would leave an indelible mark on the listening tastes of a generation, thanks to its incredible roster of the era’s budding talent—the Sex Pistols, Culture Club, Human League, and XTC among them.
“If we had stuck with the first business we’d done, we would have been out of business today,” Branson says of the recording industry’s current decline. Instead he sold Virgin Records to EMI for a lump sum in order to focus on his air-travel business, Virgin Atlantic Airways. Since then he has built businesses spanning a wide range of interests and industries—from Virgin Trains, Virgin Australia, Virgin Nigeria, and Virgin America to Virgin Vodka, Virgin Cola, Virgin Comics, and even Virgin Racing. One of the newest, shiniest, and most dazzling jewels in the Branson crown is Virgin Galactic, the company’s game-changer in progress. Launching next year, it will be among the first to provide commercial space flight to the public. Allow that to sink in.
“It’s the most exciting thing we’ve ever done,” Branson says. “As we speak this minute, our spaceship is in the air with a test pilot that used to be a pilot at Virgin Atlantic, and he’s performing his first flight, learning to become an astronaut. Every day is pretty exciting.
Branson’s humility is disarming—he displays none of the cocksure, smugly comic narcissism that he puts on for his tongue-in-cheek advertisements and late night television appearances. (In one such turn on the Conan O’Brien show, Branson threw Salma Hayek into his lap several times and then goaded her into giving him a mid-interview massage.) He is equal parts gracious, encouraging, thoughtful, and self-deprecating, though he seems to always have his mind on the next issue he wants to tackle. “In the last 50 years, since space travel started, there have only been about 500 people who have been to space,” he says. “In the first year that Virgin Galactic starts, we will send more people into space than have been in space in the history of space travel. So things will move forward quite rapidly, I believe.”
A great amount of information about this mission is available online, where you could easily get sucked into a virtual black hole of stats, rendered images, and passenger lists detailing which celebrities and multimillionaires have already snagged their reservations. Katy Perry famously bought a ticket for the maiden voyage as a wedding gift for her now ex-husband Russell Brand. Angelina Jolie will reportedly suit up for the same flight (Brad will be on the second).
The project has been criticized as a flamboyant, over-the-top thrill ride, in which the world’s wealthiest can exacerbate their God complexes in zero gravity. Much of this noise surrounds the exclusivity and price of admission, but Branson is optimistic that as the technology and the business expand, the fee will fall into a more affordable bracket. “I mean, we’ve brought space travel down from the $50 million it costs to go up in a regular spaceship to $200,000,” he says. “But over the next 20 years I hope that we can dramatically reduce that price, so that many, many people reading this article can aspire to one day become astronauts.”
There are environmental costs to factor in as well. Branson freely admits, “my carbon footprint is vast. Therefore I have to work hard to balance my books. Our spaceship program is using hardly any carbon at all. And we’re already doing a lot of scientific tests that we’ve been commissioned to do and we should be able to facilitate a lot of research in the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, because we have a way of slowing the whole spacecraft as it comes into it.”
Environmental causes factor into nearly every facet of Branson’s brand, with his charities taking up the majority of his time. He’s set up the Carbon War Room, a Washington, D.C.–based organization that works with 25 different industries in order to reduce carbon emissions wherever possible. He has also created something called the Virgin Earth Challenge, through which a $25 million prize will be awarded to the first person who can come up with a way to extract large quantities of carbon from the earth’s atmosphere. As a result, thousands of scientists and inventors are now immersed in research, hoping to solve this critical puzzle. Then there is Branson’s fight to protect endangered wildlife in Africa: most recently he’s taken an interest in saving the Madagascar lemur by building a sanctuary on Necker Island, where he mostly resides. He is also developing more ways to fly green. “We put 100 percent of our profits from our airlines into developing heat and fuels,” he says. “So in about four years’ time our planes will be flying on alkaline-based isobutanol fuels. All in all, I feel comfortable enough that I can sleep well at night.”
What goes up apparently also goes down, as Virgin is currently developing a small submarine to explore uncharted depths at the bottoms of the oceans. “There’s a trench just about five miles from the island I live on, called the Puerto Rico Trench, which is 28,000 feet under the sea, and nobody’s been down in it,” Branson says. “In about six months’ time our submarine will go down to the bottom of it, see what’s down there, and I’m going to be piloting it myself. We’re calling the people who pilot the submarine ‘aquanauts.’ We know there are 500 Spanish galleons at the bottom of this trench, and there could be a lot of species that haven’t been discovered. So it’s another quite exciting adventure.” Next, Virgin will tackle the ambitious and competitive world of hotels with an outpost opening in Chicago at the tail end of 2013.
While many are content to stay at the top of their game in a single industry, it’s an old-fashioned spirit of exploration that drives Branson to continue leaping into new fields. “I love learning. I love a new challenge. I love creating things that I can be really proud of, and I love making a difference,” he explains. “If we feel that we can make a difference, whether it’s for profit or not for profit, we’ll dive in. I had flown on various American airlines and never enjoyed the experience, so a couple of years ago we said, Screw it! Let’s set up Virgin America and create the best airline flying in America. If you create the best of anything, generally there’s a market for it.”
Ask the multibillionaire explorer what lies beyond these far-flung pursuits and he will give you a curious answer, one that is very Richard Branson: “The next step would be a hotel in space.” If that’s really on the agenda, what will it entail? “Well, you’ll have a spectacular view,” he laughs. “We’d most likely have little space ships attached to the hotel, so you could go for a day trip around the moon, and it could be programmed to maybe fly a few hundred feet above the surface, and then it would come back to the hotel at nighttime.”
“We’re dreaming big,” he says casually. “Some of these things will happen, some of these things will never happen. But unless you dream, nothing happens. We’re setting our wonderful corps of engineers and scientists challenges to see if they can make dreams become reality.” Dream on.