Rocket Man Richard Branson

Wired has an interesting article about Richard Branson's dreams of space entrepreneurship.

Branson has been mugging and grinning, diving and rappelling, ballooning and mooning his way to extreme mogulhood for nearly 40 years. (He started his first business, a magazine, while still in boarding school.) In that time, his Virgin Group has expanded from a funky record business into a sprawling keiretsu encompassing air travel, cell phones, train travel, soft drinks, African safaris, digital downloads, and Caribbean hideaways. Branson's own Virgin Island – no kidding – is available starting at $25,000 a day. All of which adds up to a personal fortune pegged by Forbes at $2.2 billion.

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. But a farsighted innovator like Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos or even Southwest Airlines' Herb Kelleher he is not. 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. While that formula has kept him in champagne and headlines, no Virgin business has ever changed the world.

Until now. Mojave Airport isn't just where aging jets wait to die; it's where the dusty dream of commercial space travel is finally coming alive. 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.

The interesting thing here is the analysis of how different this venture is from Branson's usual undertakings. He's entering an industry that doesn't really exist yet, which makes me question whether he should use the traditional Virgin super-posh strategy. But then again, with the prices people will be paying for space travel, they probably aren't real price sensitive.

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