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Virgin Spaceman

Inside billionaire Richard Branson's inspiring journey to get as far as money could take him from Truth or Consequences
Photograph courtesy of Virgin Galactic

IT IS 3 A.M. on launch day and there are some early signs that we are not in Cape Canaveral. I’m about 30 minutes into a pre-dawn press bus ride to Richard Branson’s stately space pleasure dome when United States Border Patrol officers join us at an I-25 New Mexico junction in search of “aliens”; and not the type that Richard Branson jokes will attach to his spacecraft later in the day. It’s all a bit surreal. This is a place you try to escape from; it is not your destination.

We’re on the road toward Branson’s Spaceport America, a sprawling complex located just down a desert road from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, a town that changed its name for branding purposes. It’s not the last time this will happen in this neck of the woods. For Branson, the creator of everything Virgin — from airlines to trains to megastores — there have been few consequences in his life. When he was 20, his mom bailed him out of an ill-considered tax scheme at his first record store. As a billionaire, he has been plucked out of deserts and oceans by governmental rescue units while trying to fly balloons around the world. More recently, Virgin Atlantic was rescued by a privately funded recapitalization during the pandemic. Branson has even enjoyed some breaks here in the Land of Enchantment, where Spaceport America was built with the assistance of tens of millions of dollars in tax credits and subsidies.

Not all of Branson’s businesses have flourished — frenemy Stephen Colbert will remark later as host of the Virgin livestream that people are daring to go into space with “a man who lost a fortune on sugar water,” a.k.a. Virgin Cola. For years, Virgin Galactic, the name of Branson’s space outfit, looked like another loser. Flights promising to deliver affluent humans into space for four minutes had been delayed for more than a decade, years that included the death of a pilot flying one of Branson’s experimental planes.

But that changes today. The world is entering phase two of space travel: the profit boost. Everything is different. Walter Cronkite has been replaced by Colbert. And there’s Khalid, who will perform for twice as long as Branson will be in space. We are at an aeronautical Super Bowl, the game matters less than the spectacle.

Any doubt we have entered the space infotainment era ends as soon as we disembark. VIPs and reporters are shuttled into separate mini-hangers with the admonition that no plastic will be allowed, an odd environmental concession for a day predicated on the burning of rocket fuel. Still, there isn’t much time to contemplate this odd restriction. While the summer sun is still in deep REM, a DJ is pumping out Peter Frampton and then Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance.” And then the Fixx. We are not saved by zero.

“Are we going to have to listen to this for the next nine hours,” groused a crabby old reporter. “I have to work.” He slams some Virgin-provided avocado toast on the table and collagen-infused water that tastes like the aforementioned banished plastic.

The music pauses, and the DJ speaks in his loudest voice: “We want to thank our good friends at Under Armour and Land Rover for outfitting our crew, we couldn’t do it without you.”

It is maybe 6 a.m. Right after this a video shows on multiple big screens the 70-year-old Branson arriving at Spaceport America on his bike, escorted by two white Land Rovers with their lights flashing. The messaging isn’t clear: Branson is an eco-friendly bike rider, but then why does he need to be escorted by two SUVs getting 12 miles per gallon? The answer is actually simple: It is a fucking product placement.

The video continues, and Branson hands his helmet and gloves to a lackey and then is met by the rest of his crew, who are already in their flight suits. Some wonder if Branson is tardy because Elon Musk showed up at his New Mexico hacienda at 3 a.m. to wish him well, and that’s the impression a Virgin Galactic commentator leaves when she mentions that Branson basically rode his bike to his spacecraft. It’s not until later in the day that a sharp reporter — not me, I was looking for some Pedialyte so I wouldn’t stroke out from the 96-degree heat — noticed that the New Mexico light and the time of Branson’s arrival did not match up. Later, Virgin Galactic copped to a “miscommunication,” and we learn the bike ride was actually filmed earlier in the week.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Richard Branson was a showman long before he became an astronaut.

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Richard Branson waves to school children in New Mexico while heading, as one does, to his private space flight. Andres Leighton/AP

WELCOME TO SPACE 2021, where all our hopes and dreams have been privatized. Back in the 1960s, JFK pledged the country’s resources and greatest minds to reaching the moon by the end of the decade. Sure, it was a pissing match with the Cold War Russians, but it was sold as a nation coming together for a greater good.

That is not today. Branson has been pursuing space travel for profit — currently rides cost $250,000­ — for nearly two decades. Today’s flight marks the national transition from space exploration as a pursuit of collective good to one replaced by personal hedonism. This fits perfectly with the ethos of post-Trump America. In 21st-century space research, there has long been a strong ethos of “group work is bad, individual genius is the best.” (Ayn Rand was not available to comment on the morality of Branson’s state-funded infrastructure.)

Still, there is one thing the classic space race and billionaire space race have in common: It is a cold war. This time it’s not between two nations but pits Branson against Amazon emperor Jeff Bezos. The stakes are mind-numbingly low — Branson’s flight is somewhat shorter and Bezos’ rocket takes you slightly higher, but the rewards are equally lucrative; more than 600 patricians have made a down payment toward a $250,000 Virgin Galactic flight, and 60 of them are here to watch today.

A billionaire catfight was inevitable. In June, Bezos announced he was going up on July 20th on the first manned flight of his spaceship, humbly named the Blue Shepherd. Days later, Branson moved up his fall launch to Sunday. He swore it had nothing to do with beating Bezos and absolutely no one believed him, not even his cute towheaded grandchildren.

Many grumbled about the money spent and attention being diverted from the rapidly inflamed Earth. Activists like Greta Thunberg wondered why we needed to burn more fuel into the atmosphere as the Earth went from broil to deep fry. Branson has his own climate-change foundation, and I asked him about the criticism. He defended his space efforts by citing how satellites launched by Virgin Orbit work to mitigate world hunger. “Satellites are essential for food distribution; without them, you wouldn’t get proper food distribution. We use our satellites to monitor crops, and they are essential for stopping illegal fishing,” Branson tells me. “The list goes on. I think that through our space programs, our accomplishments far outweigh any environmental cost.”

Then he added a real doozy of a claim: “The cost of somebody flying to the Spaceport and back to the U.K. would be the equivalent cost of us putting them into space and enabling them to become astronauts. It is a relatively small footprint.”

While eco experts debate the legitimacy of that statement, they all agree the climate footprint of Spaceport America is much greater than the actual flight, from the gas-guzzling Range Rovers to the energy required to maintain Branson’s spaceships.

And there are other issues besides the world being on fire. Civilization may or may not be recuperating from a modern plague, and income disparity is the vernacular of our time. I have seen “Eat the Rich” graffiti in both Davos and Tulsa. In a startling display of national unity, both blue and red America’s opinion has been running against someone like Bezos — whose Amazon empire pays virtually zero federal income taxes — and his ability to give the undertaxed one percent a touch of space for roughly the cost of your parents’ life savings. 

Branson and Bezos have, as the PR types like to say, an optics problem. (And perhaps a morality one, but anyway … ) But the Brit has come up with an ingenious diversionary gambit: He is using children as a metaphorical human shield. “I’m talking about giving hope to someone like me, a dyslexic 15-year-old, that dreams are possible,” Branson tells me the next day. He even announces that Virgin Galactic will give away two tickets into space in a lottery, not unlike the search for golden tickets in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Any lingering doubts that we have moved from The Right Stuff to some dark Roald Dahl material evaporates when Branson says later, “I’ll be Willy Wonka and give everyone a tour of Spaceport America, and I’ll hide plenty of chocolate.”

Not everyone was buying it, and some came up with their own sound bites: “Congratulations random Bond villain,” said one Twitterer, while a British commentator on a BBC news site asked, “Can you make your Virgin train toilets work first?”

EVERYONE KNOWS A STRAW-HAIRED VILLAIN’s space lair is going to be cool, and Branson’s digs do not disappoint. The day before his flight, I received a tour of Space America’s facilities. Unlike your standard rocket and booster, Virgin Galactic operates under a different dynamic: Its space pod — named Unity, by Stephen Hawking — can carry up to six passengers and two pilots, is not self-propelled, and is taken up to 50,000 feet by Eve, a double-fuselage mother jet that’s named after Branson’s own mother. Unity is then dropped and given one gigantic surge of power. The craft hits Mach 3, soars upward, and floats at 50 miles high, allowing the crew to frolic weightless for about the length of the remastered version of “Wonderwall” before the craft glides back to the runway.

The day before the flight, Eve sat peacefully in a giant hanger taking up half a football field. “We built it big with the hope we can add more,” says a Virgin Galactic exec. It’s 14 hours before takeoff and there’s just one worker on the plane, a youngish man in a backwards baseball cap looking distressingly casual as he pounds away.

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Earthbound spectators gather to watch a Virgin Galactic space plane whisk some very wealthy people into space. Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images

Customers will come into the complex on the other side and receive the space pitch before they see the merchandise. There’s a walkway connecting both sides of the hangar with a giant window strategically placed looking down on Eve. That’s for the prospective buyers. “We purposely start them on this side and then walk them across, and they always stop at the window,” says the executive. “We have to drag them out of there.”

Virgin Galactic hopes they can get patrons in and up on a flight in two or three days, a.k.a. two days less than I had to spend doing survival training for a Navy flight.

Another Galactic official gives us a look at the iconic final walk astronauts have been taking since the beginning of a space flight. “There’s a lot of design aesthetic that’s built into this, to make sure that you’ve got your friends and your family over on the sides,” says Julia Hunter. “This is where the heroes walk out to their vehicles. It is a very, very important moment.”

This isn’t the first time folks paying $250,000 to go for a joyride are labeled heroes by Virgin Galactic. Whatever. There’s actually nothing particularly dramatic about the walkout space. Tomorrow, Branson and the five others will walk down the ramp, and to the left is a lounge reminiscent of an upscale Marriott lobby. On the right is a coffee spot where Hunter says the Virgin Galactic group bonds and spitballs ideas.

It’s not exactly Apollo 11-dramatic, but they do ride to the space plane in specially designed Land Rovers. This John Glenn did not do.

FINALLY, IT IS SHOWTIME. The crew of four men and two women make their way to their Land Rovers in their Under Armour flight suits that give off a Space 1999 vibe. The VIPs clap and rattle their jewelry. Two miles down the runway, the crew are loaded into their seats. The Eve rumbles down the runway looking as graceful as a prehistoric bird in The Flintstones. No matter, it does its job. Off they go, climbing 30,000 feet. “They’re now higher than most commercial airliners,” says an announcer. 40,000. 50,000. Mission Control begins a final countdown toward Unity being released.

“We are armed for release. Ten seconds, 5-4-3-2-1. Release, release, release! Clean release ignition. Good rocket motor burn. There’s Mach 1 trimming now. Trim complete, Unity is pointed directly up and heading to space; things are looking great; we are 25 seconds into the burn, now approaching Mach 2 [in] 30 seconds. Mach 2, everything’s looking really good and stable. 40 seconds, 45 seconds, 50 seconds; approaching Mach 3. There’s Mach 3 and 60 seconds, and that is a full duration burn. Folks we are headed to space … ”

The highest point of Branson’s rocket plane is 279,000 feet and is called the apogee for reasons profoundly uninteresting. What is slightly more interesting is that many space nerds insist space doesn’t start until more than 60 miles high, suggesting the Unity doesn’t quite get there. At the apogee, the Unity hovers for four minutes, and that’s when Branson and the other crew members get out of their seats and flit about and look down on this big blue marble. Most of the crowd is mesmerized and staring at footage coming from the craft. Alas, the whole flight is a glitch fest, and the feed and sound garbled in and out. Except for some patchy glimpses, the feed doesn’t return to a modicum of clarity until the Unity is making a graceful glide back toward Spaceport. We learn later that this is what Branson’s said to the young:

“I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I’m an adult in a spaceship looking down to our beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers: If we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”

Almost simultaneously, Virgin Galactic releases information about their contest that will choose two members of the hoi polloi to join the fat cats on an upcoming flight. Meanwhile, Branson and the rest of the crew arrive in their Land Rovers back at Mission Control. Branson is nearly tackled by his two grandchildren, and the rest of the crew is hugged by family and lovers. It’s a scene not unlike what I remember of Navy fly-ins after my dad’s squadron returned from a six-month deployment. Branson and his colleagues have been gone for a little over two hours.

In the burning sun, Branson and his crew are given their astronaut badges as the rich and ready whoop and holler. Getting labeled an “astronaut” is part of the marketing charm but seems more than a little dubious. Calling anyone who spends 240 seconds in space an astronaut cheapens the sacrifices of everyone from Neil Armstrong to Sally Ride. But no matter, Branson is on an adrenaline high. He chatters excitedly, some of the words making sense.

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Astronaut Sirisha Blanda celebrates with Branson following their flight. © Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMA

He drops an unintended truth bomb: “Well, I’ve done some ridiculous things in my lifetime, but this was really, really, really ridiculous.”

Eventually, Branson puts his grandchildren down and does one of his trademark, grandly dated gestures from his bad-boy days. He surprises crew member Sirisha Bandla and lifts her up until she is sitting on his shoulders. Champagne sprays, and ecstasy is in the air.

After a brief meet-and-greet with some grade-school kids from nearby impoverished Las Cruces, Branson sets out on the most grueling part of his day: He does three hours of television interviews in full flight suit as the temperature flirts with triple digits. Most of the television crews are enthralled, their questions limited to “what was it like,” and some even pose for selfies with Branson afterward. Back at the Virgin Galactic home office, high-fives are shared as news filters in that more than 12 million viewers watched the discombobulated livestream.

From a marketing point of view, all systems are go.

I RETURN BACK TO MY HOTEL in Las Cruces, the nearest decent-size town, and notice there is not one banner or mention of Branson’s space flight in the whole town. It is almost like Spaceport America is in a different America than the one the rest of us live in.

The next morning, I talked to Branson, and he sounded exhausted but content. He had rationalized going up in space as a chance to do a customer checklist on the experience. “It really could not have gone better,” Branson tells me. I have one question left. Sure, he had given kids inspirational words, but did he have any specific advice for an 11-year-old boy or girl who wanted to see the stars up close. First, he urged them to register for the lottery, which in fact could be entered for a small donation to a worthy cause. (A smaller font suggested you could enter for free.)

“They can ask their granddad or dad to buy an amazing ticket, and you’ll have a chance to go to space.” But what about specific advice if you’re not one of Wonka’s special guests? Branson pauses for a second and then responds cheerfully.

“Well, if that doesn’t work out, then hopefully by the time you are in your thirties or forties, you may have made a bit of money and are able to afford to go into space.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated who rescued Virgin Atlantic from its financial woes during the pandemic.