When Sir Richard Branson blasted off into space on Sunday he broke – or rather established – several important records. While he wasn’t the first billionaire to go into space – the extra-terrestrial ten-digit honours belong to Hungarian-born Microsoft Office software magnate Charles Simonyi, who went up to space on a Russian rocket in 2007 – Branson was the first man (billionaire or no) to go to space in a rocket that he had funded and built himself. For what it’s worth, he’s also the first knight of the realm to go into space, which has a certain anachronistic cachet, like a time-travelling Roman senator.
In achieving his ambition, which began with the foundation of Virgin Galactic in 2004, Sir Richard has also pipped at least one vastly richer American to the post. Jeff Bezos – worth in the order of $212 billion – is expected to blast off into the never-never aboard his Blue Origin rocket New Shepard, named in honour the first American in space Alan Shepard, in the coming days, while Elon Musk, whose SpaceX corporation is working on plans to get to Mars, may well have higher ambitions altogether. Musk, according to reports, was in New Mexico to watch Branson’s successful bid.
After reaching 53.4 miles above to the earth to the top of the Mesosphere in the outer atmosphere (high enough to earn your astronaut’s wings from the US government but not quite as high as the International Aeronautical Federation’s definition of space at the Karman line at 62 miles up) weightless Sir Richard has boldly gone where no airline boss or record label owner has gone before.
But much more than this he is doing for space what Thomas Cook did for travel 180 years ago. Cook - a former cabinet maker - famously brought European travel to the masses, creating the first ever package holidays to the continent from the 1850s. While space is likely to remain the preserve of the very wealthy for some time to come, it's hard not to admire Branson's pioneering spirit. In business newspeak has created a new market segment. And having proven that his baby, VSS Unity, works – by putting himself in the hot seat, Sir Richard has made space tourism a fact of life, not science fiction.
‘Welcome to the dawn of a new space age,’ Branson said. ‘To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars. Now I'm an adult in a spaceship. To the next generation of dreamers - if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.’
The flight may have launched into the heavens above New Mexico, from a spaceport in the Jornada del Muerto desert, in spaceship built there by a company that is listed in New York. And the venture may have been spearheaded by a Briton who lives in Necker Island in the BVI – a long way from Blighty and the taxman. But even so, this is very much a British achievement.
And not only because the septuagenarian Branson comes from these shores. Let’s not forget that that company that built the spacecraft – The Spaceship Company – is a third owned by Virgin Group, (it’s described as a sister company to Virgin). Moreover, there were two Brits, including ex-RAF test pilot Dave Mackay at the controls, with Sir Richard in the VSS Unity when it bolted out of the blue at the weekend. If you consider that it took 60 years of spaceflight for us to get seven UK-born men or women into space (Tim Peake was number seven in 2015, according to the British Interplanetary Society), then minting three more British-born astronauts in one day is quite an achievement. Unlike the football, Britain's space ambitions are coming home.
It’s become fashionable in certain quarters to be sniffy about billionaires. Look at the political and public pushback Branson received when he asked for a loan to help Virgin Atlantic out when the airline market imploded because of Covid.
But the truth is, regardless of Sir Richard’s tax status or the depth of his billionaire’s tan or whiteness of this smile, he is a British icon and brand.
His victory is also a victory for Team GB. It’s been a very long time since Britain, once the third space power after the USSR and the USA, had something to shout about regarding space. Yes, we are very good at satellites, and we do rovers too.
But Branson has given Britain its first real first in space. The Russians had the first satellite, first dog and first man in space. The Americans eventually got their own back by getting the first man on the Moon in 1969. Well, now Britain has beaten the world to space tourism.
And it matters because pretty soon, like all tourism, where the rich go, the rest of us will follow. As a result of last weekend the extra-terrestrial world got a lot closer to the average man or woman than ever before. And that’s down to Sir Richard Branson.