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30 June 2023

Richard Branson’s ship of fools

Is the Virgin Galactic founder a pioneer or an egotist?

By Esther Watson

Yesterday morning in the arid deserts of New Mexico Virgin Galactic successfully completed its first commercial operation. Michael Colglazier, the company’s chief executive, hailed a new era of “repeatable and reliable access to space for private guests”.

Nobody was more pleased by the mission than Richard Branson. After years of setbacks, multiple promises (and then failures) to launch, billions of dollars of investment and the deaths of one pilot and three engineers, he will now be able to commence with plans for monthly space trips for private passengers from August onwards. In the coming days Virgin Galactic will announce the second flight’s passengers. Who are the people that have paid a reported $450,000 for each ticket?

That list promises to be an intriguing social X-ray. There will be bored billionaires and wealthy adrenaline addicts. Nameless CEOs and Marie Antoinettish celebrities. Will they be remembered as brave pioneers pushing against earthly frontiers into our cosmic future? Or will they be seen as a ship of fools, people with more money than sense who think they can escape the Earth’s problems by going into orbit?

Branson now vaults ahead of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in the 21st-century space race – contested this time between billionaires, rather than nation states. Billionaires were once satisfied with the bountiful riches planet Earth had to offer but as their bank balances have swelled, so have their ambitions.

What makes Branson’s exploits more curious is that his riches are sparse compared to the other space tycoons. The Virgin founder is worth a mere $3bn compared with Bezos’s $151bn and Musk’s $235bn. But Branson has always refused to be held back: not by his much-publicised struggles with dyslexia; certainly not by his wealthier competition in this space race. Although Branson appears to have it all, including a private island, when it comes to space, there is seemingly no amount of money that can satisfy him. In other words: there is no amount of money that can make the male ego disappear. And it is this powerful egotism that has surely motivated Branson to propel himself, his business and some very rich tourists into space.

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[See also: Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and our new age of hyper-masculinity]

Branson is a man of contradictions. A man who was so excited at a Clinton Foundation fundraising event he pledged to donate $3bn to fight climate change (his net worth at the time was… $3bn). A man who makes grand declarations about giving to charity, but fails in his basic civic duty to pay tax. (Branson is a self-described tax exile.) A man who cried when he announced to his staff that he had sold Virgin Records but didn’t share any of the $1bn he made from the sale with those whose jobs were at risk. He sees himself as a creative, a free spirit. Part rock and roll, part hippy. He is David in an industry of Goliaths. A billionaire businessman who didn’t know the difference between net and gross until he was fifty years old.

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Bored of yachts and private islands and publicity stunts with air hostesses Branson set his sights higher. Having colonised land with his vast hotels, the sea with mammoth cruise ships and the air with Virgin planes, next on Branson’s list was space.

Branson is old school, Gatbsy style, rich. One can’t help but slightly admire his brashness. He has marketed himself as living the way any normal person would live should they strike gold. Travel and parties and a revolving door of friends: some powerful, some beautiful, but all rich. The image he has cultivated of himself as an average guy who just so happens to be incredibly canny in the world of business is as synonymous with the Virgin brand as aeroplanes or all inclusive holidays.

Contrast with other billionaires who, despite also having it all, remain totally preoccupied with convincing the rest of the world they are still normal, still just like us. Mark Zuckerberg is so normal he dresses in nothing but grey t-shirts. Jeff Bezos is normal in a different way: see his ongoing midlife crisis, complete with obligatory second wife. Slightly lower down the wealth scale, Adele says the biggest change of her life since becoming a multi-millionaire is that she now shops in Waitrose.

[See also: How do you destroy a brand?]

Branson takes rote criticism, of the kind all billionaires receive, for living it up with Gatsby-esque parties and pursuits. But I’d take him over Bill Gates, who bangs on and on about the evils of inheritance and how he wants his children to forge their own path in life. Luckily for Gates’s eldest daughter she can plot that path from either her $51m Tribeca apartment or her $16m ranch in upstate New York. Branson instead openly embraces the billionaire lifestyle and all the riches that come with it. Necker Island, a tax haven in the Virgin Islands and his primary residence, has long welcomed the rich and famous. It is the first place President Obama went on holiday after leaving the White House; it’s where Kate Moss went to recover after her cocaine scandal; it’s where Princess Diana took her two young sons in 1990 to escape from the prying eyes of the press.(She was still papped on the beach.)

The connections Branson has worked so assiduously to forge over the years will continue to benefit him. Consider that 900 tickets have already been sold at $450,000 a piece to the first hoard of Virgin Galactic space tourists. Justin Bieber, Tom Hanks and Leonardo Dicaprio have all reportedly purchased their seats. Lady Gaga wrangled one for free in return for agreeing to perform on board, which will be streamed back to earth.

At the height of the space race in 1968 the American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote: “To see the Earth as it truly is… is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together… brothers who know now they truly are brothers.” The Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, after spending $80m for a 12-day space adventure, wants “as many people as possible… to visit space…They will see Earth differently and treat it differently.” Unlike Bezos and Musk, who have offered more pragmatic, species-survival reasons for venturing into space, Branson holds to this more romantic view.

On his maiden voyage in July 2021 he (presumably) unintentionally paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr’s speech. “To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up at the stars,” he said. Branson had had almost twenty years to practise that speech. Somehow I don’t think it will go down in history the way he might have envisioned. Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969 was widely regarded as humanity’s greatest achievement – if man could set foot on the moon there was nothing humanity couldn’t do. Fifty years on Aldrin spoke of how people still stopped him to tell him exactly where they were when they witnessed the event. I somehow doubt the same thing will happen to Branson in fifty years – but has it ever harmed him to be ambitious?

From the outside, Richard Branson looks like a man living out every iteration of every different fantasy. Perhaps his motivation is that he genuinely wants others to be able to live out their Peter Pan fantasies too. The more likely explanation is that he wants to prove to the world that he too, a normal, albeit very successful man, can sit at the highest table of them all with the biggest players. A table which now happens to be floating in outer space.

[See also: Musk vs Zuckerberg: Whoever wins, we lose]