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How Richard Branson Became The First Space Billionaire: The Virgin Galactic Story

From describing space as "difficult" to actually visiting it, here is a brief history of Richard Branson's bumpy space journey.

How Richard Branson Became The First Space Billionaire: The Virgin Galactic Story
Richard Branson in zero gravity. Virgin Galactic

"Space is difficult," Richard Branson said in a 2018 TV appearance with CNN in 2018, "it [literally] is rocket science."

Three years later, and the Virgin founder and billionaire entrepreneur made it to space, on July 11, aboard one of his company's space airplanes — though not above the Kármán line, as his counterpart Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin is quick to point out.

And it has been a tough and meandering journey, starting with the founding of Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson in 2004, four years after Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin in 2000, and two years after SpaceX in 2002.

Virgin Galactic's origins

"The Moon landing was a catalystic moment for me," Richard Branson stated in a video released by Virgin Galactic. After the 1969 Moon landing, he was sure that many young people, like himself, would one day have the opportunity to go into space.

However, Branson "waited and waited," but the pace of space innovation was slower than many had hoped, in part due to catastrophic setbacks in the Space Shuttle Program leading to less backing from Congress in the United States.

Finally, Branson set out to launch a space tourism company himself. He founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, with the intention of using a variation of SpaceShipOne, a reusable suborbital space airplane built by a company called Scaled Composites, for private leisure spaceflight.

SpaceShipOne was designed to take off attached to a carrier aircraft called White Knight, after which it detaches and the rocket's engines ignite to lift the space plane to space.

Fatal accidents delay the space tourism dream

Virgin Galactic's original plans, as space technology blog Parabolic Arc points out, were to fly 3,000 passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo vehicles during their first five years, with tickets costing $208,000 each.

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Things got off to a good start on June 21, 2004, with Scaled Composites pilot Mike Melvill flying the SpaceShipOne on the first private suborbital space flight in history, reaching an altitude of just over 100 km (62.1 miles). Virgin Galactic was officially launched only a few months later on September 27, 2004.

How Richard Branson Became The First Space Billionaire: The Virgin Galactic Story
The SpaceShipOne was designed to launch to space after detaching from a companion aircraft called White Knight. Source: D Ramey Logan/Wikimedia Commons

However, several tragic setbacks caused delays to Virgin Galactic's original plans. The first of these was a test-stand explosion at California's Mojave Air and Space Port in July 2007, which resulted in the death of three Scaled Composites employees.

Tragedy struck again on October 31, 2014, during a test flight of the first SpaceShipTwo vehicle prototype, VSS Enterprise. The vehicle broke apart in the skies above the Mojave desert, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold. 

As Space.com points out, it was later determined that Alsbury had unlocked the VSS Enterprise's unique "feathering" re-entry system too early. Richard Branson and the crew of Sunday's flight flew on the VSS Unity, a newer version of SpaceShipTwo that includes design features to prevent catastrophic feather deployment.

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Virgin Galactic opens the doors to the 'Gateway to Space'

More recently, things have started to look up for Virgin Galactic. In 2016, the company unveiled a new SpaceShipTwo model, called VSS Unity, during a ceremony in Mojave. Amongst the new features, the new spaceplane integrates safety features to ensure that its "feathering" re-entry system doesn't deploy too early.

How Richard Branson Became The First Space Billionaire: The Virgin Galactic Story
The SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity in flight. Source: Virgin Galactic

The company also announced that the launch of a separate spin-off company in 2017, called Virgin Orbit, to deliver satellites into space aboard a modified Boeing 747 — the new firm launched its first payload of seven satellites in July this year.

In 2019, the company opened the doors to the world's first commercial space terminal, the 'Gateway to Space' at its Spaceport America facility in New Mexico. In March this year, Virgin Galactic announced the first of its next-gen SpaceShip III vehicle, VSS Imagine, as well as the development of its next spacecraft, VSS Inspire.

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The billionaire space race reignites Karman line debate

A lot had been made in recent days of the rivalry between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and Blue Origin, another company that aims to get very wealthy tourists to space.

On June 7, Jeff Bezos announced he will go to space on July 20, in the first crewed mission of Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft. Shortly afterward, Virgin Galactic announced that Branson would go to space on July 11, to "evaluate the customer experience" aboard VSS Unity.

Though Bezos has since congratulated Branson on social media, Blue Origin recently tweeted a scathing commentary on the differences between their own credentials and those of Virgin Galactic. In the tweet, they wrote:

"From the beginning, New Shepard was designed to fly above the Karman line so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name."

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"For 96 percent of the world’s population, space begins [62 miles] 100 km up at the internationally recognized Karman line."

The same tweet points out that Virgin Galactic's space planes don't reach that altitude — Richard Branson's flight on Sunday, for example, reached an altitude of 53.5 miles (85 kilometers) before returning to Earth.

How Richard Branson Became The First Space Billionaire: The Virgin Galactic Story
VSS Unity reached a speed of Mach 3 and a space altitude of 53.5 miles with Richard Branson aboard on July 11, 2021. Source: Virgin Galactic

Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is the first private company to send astronauts into orbit, has seemingly backed Virgin Galactic by saying he will go to space on one of its space planes — the SpaceX and Tesla CEO has done little to hide the animosity between Bezos and himself in recent months.

While many do accept the Karman line as the boundary between space and Earth, the influence of Earth's atmosphere extends much farther, and it even interacts with the Moon, over 384,400 kilometers away, in subtle ways.

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The US Air Force and NASA however, consider the border of space to be 50 miles (80km) from the Earth's surface.

Ultimately, these boundaries are set by humans and there is no one true indicator of the line between Earth and space. If both companies can inspire change via the Overview Effect, then they will arguably achieve their goals no matter the exact altitude they reach.

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