Richard Branson Vows to Upstage Elon Musk in Space

Richard Branson and George Whitesides gave out at SpaceShipTwo after it came to a stop on Runway 12. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Richard Branson says he’s looking for some way to upstage SpaceX’s launch of Falcon Heavy and Starman driving a Red Tesla.

“I was a little bit jealous,” Richard Branson told CNN’s Christine Romans on Tuesday.

Branson, whose Virgin Galactic is racing to launch tourists into space before SpaceX, called Musk’s stunning Falcon Heavy launch “extraordinary.”

“They all just did fantastic,” Branson said at the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Summit in Washington. He added that Virgin Galactic is “thinking about what we can do to upstage that one.”

Hey, good luck with that.

It’s hard to imagine anything they could do with SpaceShipTwo or LauncherOne that could upstage what I saw from the beach last week in Florida. The only thing I can compare Falcon Heavy with is a midnight shuttle launch I watched from the press area back in the day.

There is one category where Virgin is definitely ahead: anxiety. Falcon Heavy was at once vastly more spectacular and far less stressful to watch than a flight of SpaceShipTwo. Nobody’s likely to die if a Falcon Heavy launch fails.

You might think that just getting something into space this year would be accomplishment enough for Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic way back in 1999. On the other hand, a game of one-upmanship with Musk is great publicity whatever the outcome.

It’s been more than a month since the seventh glide test of SpaceShipTwo Unity on Jan. 11. I’m expecting the first powered flight of this second vehicle fairly soon. Given what happened the last time, it’s going to be a very stressful thing to watch.

Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit is moving along toward a flight test of LauncherOne around the third quarter of the year. The company recently tweeted about two launch campaign rehearsals it conducted in Mojave.

We’ll see what happens. Maybe this is the year the nation’s first inland spaceport actually has something launched into space from here.  It’s a proud designation that has lost a bit of its luster with the lack of spaceflights over the last 13+ years.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    Giving him the benefit of all doubts, he’ll certainly beat Musk in launching tourists on the world’s highest and most expensive roller coaster. Oh, wait, Elon isn’t interested in launching tourists on expensive roller coaster rides, is he? I actually think Branson will finish second in both debut and altitude to Blue Origin unless Bezos loses interest in New Shepard and concentrates on New Glenn and New Armstrong.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Bezos isn’t going to “lose interest”. Branson is on the short bus compared to both Musk and Bezos.

  • duheagle

    That Necker Island weed must really be something.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    You’re probably right but BO has gone silent again so, who knows?

  • Michael Halpern

    BO has gone silent because that is what BO does, you hear about milestones, but they dont really talk about much in between. New Sheppard is already a valuable R&D asset, not just for BO but for people who want to do micro-gravity experiments and test hardware for micro-gravity, by not having a human pilot, they can capture that market more readily and because it IS a rocket, they test how hardware behaves to launch stress making it more valuable to research than SS2 can ever be,

  • Michael Halpern

    Yeah his fancy zero stage has a zero chance of upstaging what is probably this generation’s “Earthrise” moment.

  • Vladislaw

    Those are all good reasons but all can be had on any sounding rocket. You missed the REAL money maker. It brings your experiment back and lands it. No parachute crashes to earth and trying to locate it and hope it didn’t land on a rock. No it is the ability to bring it back and have fast turn around times. Once he has a dozen of them you can order a launch in days rather than months or years. fast iterations has always been a problem for space and SpaceX and Blue Origin are soaking of the benefits of used hardware to analyze and improve,

  • Michael Halpern

    yep they may be .com billionaires but they like validating their product the old fashion way, test, test and test again. Mind you thats probably in part because the tech industry knows that sometimes the best way to find a problem is to put the product in conditions it is far more likely to fail than it would in normal use

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, they are actually do a lot more testing than NASA ever did with its systems. The Blue Origins abort test was especially cool to watch and showed how rugged their system is.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sir Richard Branson bought into the failed Ansari X-Prize hype and has been paying the cost for it ever since. He is basically developing biplanes (1950 style expendable air launch, and air launch rocket gliders) while his competitors are building jet airliners (21st Century FH, BFR, New Shepard, New Glenn).

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually the Saturn V’s F1 engines were put through the wringer quite a bit only part that wasn’t was the motor that got them off the Moon, because it could only ever be fired once, but if you decide you want your system to be truly reusable, testing the crap out of better not hurt it any or you have a problem

  • windbourne

    It is amazing how often we hear of the Tesla killer, the solar city killer , and now the spaceX killer.

    I would love to see Branson finally get his SS2 going and making money. More importantly, it will give space lots of visibility.
    And this is finally, the year for the west to shine for manned space:
    1) Branson with manned SS2 going up to sub-orbital space.
    2) Blue Origin with manned New Shep going up to sub-orbital space.
    3) SpaceX with manned Dragon 2 going up to orbital.

    Then add next year, 2019, for Boeing with manned starliner.

    What is needed is for 2019, or 2020 at the lastest, to add habitats to ISS and get ppl/cargo going.
    Ideally, it would be other nation’s space administration using private space for training, esp. for going to the moon.

  • perilun

    I hope his project goes well, but for him and the rest of the Billionare’s Space Club (BSC) they should start to plan that SpaceX and the BFR transforms the launch business in a way that no other capability will be within 4x capability at any price and 100x price-per-kg. Before FH many of us were skeptical of both Mr. Musk’s resolve and SpaceX’s ability to pull this off. FH is more of a technical statement for SpaceX maturity than a long term launch solution. We should now consider SpaceX the premier space company in the world – by a long shot. With this now proven team and a clear and funded goal to create the BFR system the chances of anyone other than BO being even close in 10 years seems slim. SpaceX, with the #1 launch rate in the world, industry unique services and one-of-a-kind now proven reuse technology they have access to funding well beyond Mr Musk’s fortune or SpaceX operational revenue. NO GOV’T FUNDING NEEDED. With that comes talent pull that will starve the rest of the BCS of launch and manned space talent. What is left for the BSC is to create the service and payloads that the BFR system will enable: lunar bases, $10K a day LOE tourism, a large space station, $100K a week lunar hotels (say in 20 years) … The BFR system will capture most of the regular payloads not sole sourced by national security or government special deals. The real challenge left will be the payloads and services.

  • redneck

    I think you’ll find that “let Elon handle it” is not the way it will happen. Once a route is known to a desirable goal, there will arise a number of solutions that were formerly overlooked/underfunded. 10 years is a very long time to expect no other group to get traction if lucrative markets develop. If the markets don’t develop as many of us expect, then Elon may well be at the head of a frontal attack against a vanished opportunity.

    I expect markets to develop in response to cheaper and more responsive launch. I expect other players to smell the blood in the water and cut some of those decadal development timelines to short years.

  • Paul451

    to add habitats to ISS

    Currently political winds are blowing towards shifting from ISS to DSG/LOPG, no additional development on ISS will be funded.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    History is not on your side. There is the example of Bezos and his Amazon Empire.

  • Zen_Punk

    I hope not.

    What a sad statement it would be if the most profound image we could offer to compare against one of the most-remembered scenes of all time was a dummy in a used car.

  • Zen_Punk

    uhh…”expendable?” Kinda hard to have an expendable launch system that’s made out of a plane and a manned craft.

  • redneck

    There are also the examples of the Wright brothers, Apple, and MacDonalds. We could go back and forth indefinitely with examples that may or may not back our points. History is on the side of its’ chroniclers, as is all hindsight.

  • redneck

    My apologies. I didn’t realize it was you in that spacesuit. How does the car handle in vacuum?

  • Daniel Böttger

    Sounds like a rap move. Small time player claiming beef with a big guy for a brief touch of relevance. If Musk was stupid enough to respond, some visibility would rub off, but of course he isn’t.

    It makes no sense unless you see that Virgin Galactic is purely a prestige project and what it needs to produce is stories about Branson.

    If Branson could choose between a future where he is all over the news because another test pilot died and one where VG flies tourists successfully but he is somehow never personally mentioned, he’d pick the former.

  • Michael Halpern

    It isn’t about the car, it’s the fact that it’s so surreal. It’s the fact that this was the first launch of the first privately developed super heavy lifter. The car got people watching, the mission itself proved that beyond Earth orbit doesn’t have to be the strict domain of government agencies like NASA or cost plus contractors like ULA

  • perilun

    As I suggested BO (Blue Origin) has a shot due to Bezos’ nearly infinite funds … but the BO slow approach risks not retaining the people as SpaceX continues to rack up more operational and development success. The BO New Glenn effort is now in a race with SpaceX BFR … and it will be good to have two super-heavy-lift options 10 years from now. Mr Branson’s 6 people in a rocket plane to 100km seems like a very specialized business with a lot of risks. If it was simple and reliable it would have happened by now. As far as launch service costs Gov’t funded efforts have proven slow and more expensive, not less. The handful of other private efforts are small sat efforts, which may have a market for 1/4 Falcon 9 sized payloads to unique orbits or sub-orbital tests. Its the private money that gives SpaceX the freedom to move fast and build big. If we are just looking at Space Tourism a $10K ticket for a 1 day zero gravity LEO ride on board a spacecraft with the enclosed volume of a Super Jumbo aircraft (with those amenities) seems like a category killer.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The real problem is that Sir Richard Branson has forgotten VG was originally about tourism, not hardware. He now has his ego wrapped up in Launcher One and SpaceShipTwo. What he should be doing is moving beyond those old 1950’s ideas and just contract with BO to market the New Shepard for tourists flights and doing the same for BFR. It would allow him to focus on his strength, which is marketing, and cut his losses in his weakness, building space hardware.

    Really, it would be very simple to convert the facilities at Spaceport America to support the New Shepard since the site was originally selected because it was ideal for vertical launch operations. An air launch operation had no need of the isolation of SA and VG could have easily flown out of Las Cruces International Airport, with the state only investing a fraction of what it put into Spaceport America.

    Then VG would be able to use the fancy runway and terminal for the VIPs flying in on their business jets for the flights.

  • ThomasLMatula

    History is even more on the side of the winners and not the losers.

  • duheagle

    Generally agree. But New Glenn is not going to be competition for BFR, the two vehicles are just going to enter service around the same time. NG is not fairly categorizable as a super-heavy lifter either. NG is a rough peer competitor to the heavy-lift FH. Even at that, FH is already capable of more lift to LEO and is more reusable than NG will be, though the 3-stage NG will be capable of more BEO throw weight and support physically larger payloads. Blue Origin’s potential competitor for BFR-BFS is going to be New Armstrong. But we’ve seen no detailed specs for NA yet and it will enter service some unknown interval later than BFR-BFS.

  • Jeff2Space

    I wouldn’t say they’re doing “a lot more testing than NASA ever did”. In the 1960s, NASA tested a lot. Developing the F-1 wasn’t a cake walk and took a lot of testing. Heck, the Saturn I and Saturn IB were built to test manned spacecraft (LEM and CSM) and the Saturn V upper stage before the Saturn V was even flying.

    Now today’s NASA is another story. It’s a “mature” government organization that’s grown simultaneously risk averse and glacially slow at the same time. Is it any wonder SLS won’t fly for 3 more years and won’t fly with a crew for 6 more years?

  • publiusr

    New Armstrong needs to be BFR itself. Bezos supplies the money–SpaceX–the talent.

    Branson? Get with Paul Allen–and make Stratolaunch your drop vessel–for Spaceship III.

    Full of passengers for sub-orbital, or a small capsule on an expendable to orbit.

    That’s his only chance to stay in the game.

  • Zen_Punk

    It was neat but that’s all it was. It was no ‘earthrise.’

  • Michael Halpern

    It brought people together, and for just a short while, an impressive few days the political situation didn’t seem to mater as much