Thursday, January 20, 2005

Richard Branson

There are so many great features in this story:

Last summer, a tiny winged wonder called SpaceShipOne spiked 62 miles into the
desert sky on its way to nailing the $10 million X Prize for the first sustainable civilian suborbital flight. The world's stuffed-shirt airline chiefs took one look and went back to worrying about fuel prices. Branson took one look at the gleaming white carbon-fiber spaceship and said, Beam me up. The upshot is Virgin Galactic, the world's first off-the-planet private airline. Under a deal still being negotiated with SpaceShipOne's owners - Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and legendary Mojave airplane designer Burt Rutan - Virgin will pay up to $21.5 million for an exclusive license to SpaceShipOne's core design and technologies. Another $50 million will go to Rutan's company Scaled Composites to build five tricked-out passenger spaceships. An equal amount will be invested in operations, including a posh Virgin Earth Base somewhere in the California desert. Total outlay: $121.5 million. Business plan: 50 passengers a month, paying $200,000 each. Core product: a two-hour flight to an apex beyond Earth's atmosphere, wrapped in a three-day astronaut experience. Lift off: T-minus three years.

To celebrate, Sir Richard Charles Nicholas Branson, 54-year-old lord of a $9 billion-a-year global empire, joins his happy TV troupe in mooning the crew. Everyone cracks up.

Despite such a dazzling career, the business world has always been ambivalent toward Britain's best-known entrepreneur. He launches trendy companies the way Trump builds casinos.

Branson traffics in opportunism. He spots a stodgy, old-line industry, rolls out the Virgin logo, sprinkles some camera-catching glitter, and poof - another moneymaker.

Of course, Virgin Galactic is a tiny bit riskier than the typical Branson venture. For starters, the first passenger-carrying Virgin spaceship - already dubbed VSS Enterprise - is still just a glow on Rutan's computer screen. No one knows how big the market for seats into space might be. And what happens to the business model when a ship full of amateur astronauts fails to make it back to Mojave in one piece?

But look at the upside. The total price tag is half the cost of a single Airbus A340-600 - and Virgin Atlantic ordered 26 of those last summer. In return, Branson gets bragging rights to one of the cooler breakthroughs of the early 21st century, with rocket-powered marketing opportunities that could fuel excitement - and sales - in his entire 200-company holding group.

For the happy-go-lucky tycoon, though, there's something else at stake: Virgin Galactic is his chance to climb off that 747's wing and into the history books with the first airline - make that the first brand - on the final frontier. "Affordable private space travel opens a new era in human history," he tells reporters at a mini press event for the reality show in LA. "We'll go into orbit; we'll go to the moon. This is a business that has no limits."

Virgin Galactic isn't just about seizing first-mover advantage in space - it's about opening space to a wave of other entrepreneurs who will follow if Branson succeeds. Commercial spaceships will lead the way for private investment in what has been a government-funded vacuum, bringing a new physics of market forces to outer space. If Branson and his Virginauts can attract even a quarter of the customers they believe are out there, they'll rally today's backwater of wild dreamers, cranky engineers, and rich geeks to launch an era of glittery, out-of-this-world-class new businesses. "If we can make space fun," Branson says, "the rest will follow."

So today Branson is a billionaire with a mission. Forget low-cost satellite launches and zero-gravity platforms for growing crystals. Here comes caviar, designer space suits, and charter membership in the 62-Mile-High Club. The right stuff for everyman - or, at least, anybody with four and a half times the median annual US salary to burn on a three-day weekend.

Take that, Donald Trump!

[emphasis added and wording rearranged. See the original article here]


Blogger M.T. Daffenberg said...

Not sure if I like Branson all that much, but I cannot stand the Wigged One. You're blogrolled.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Sarah Beth said...

I've only first heard about Branson, I started looking at him a little when someone explained the ,Vera Coking incident,to me. That's when I realized what a sleaze Trump really is. Plus, for Branson to lead the private space flight thing is worth many points in my book.

5:54 PM  
Blogger M.T. Daffenberg said...

Admittedly, I think Branson's space venture is good. I have an innate prejudice against the very rich (I know, I know, not fair nor rational, but it's there and leaks into my writing all the time). Thanks for directing me to the Coking incident article, I did not know--I have a feeling very few do.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Sarah Beth said...

Perhaps I should do a post on it ;)
What is an "innate prejudice"? I don't believe there is such a thing. Prejudices are emotions, emotions are responses to value judgements. If you think it's not rational or fair, why do you choose to allow it to leak into your writing?

11:27 AM  

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