Richard Branson: Building an Empire on Other People’s Money

Richard Branson waves to the crowd after landing at the $209 million spaceport that New Mexican taxpayers are building for him in 2010. From left to right are then-New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and then-New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Rick Homans.

The Observer’s Richard Wachman asks an interesting question I’ve been wondering about a lot lately:

Virgin brands: What does Richard Branson really own?

The sprawling business empire that makes up Richard Branson’s Virgin investment group consists of about 400 operations, a tangled web of enterprises owned via a complicated series of offshore trusts and overseas holding companies.

Branson’s finances are difficult to penetrate because of their complexity and opaqueness, with few of his large companies wholly owned by Branson himself. His big-branded firms such as Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Money, Virgin Media and Virgin Trains have other major shareholders. In some cases, he simply licenses the brand to a company that has purchased a subsidiary from him, and these include Virgin Mobile USA, Virgin Mobile Australia, Virgin Radio and Virgin Music (now part of EMI). In return, as the licence holder of the Virgin brand, he receives annual or triennial fees that can amount to hundreds of millions over time.

By forging partnerships with cash-rich allies, Branson has established new businesses without depleting the group’s reserves and spending little to establish new ventures in sectors such as mobile telecoms. But initiatives come straight from Branson, who prides himself on his ability to spot a gap in the market. He is not a numbers or a details man and leaves the everyday running of his firms to a group of lieutenants.

Which brings us to Virgin Galactic. And the numbers there are really interesting.


Is Battle Brewing Between British Royalnauts?

Prince Harry and his brother, Prince William, on a typical day out in Central London. (Photo credit: Staszek99)

As part of our continuing effort to keep its readers up to date on all things Celebritynaut, Parabolic Arc is proud to present the latest British royal who is determined to fly into space.

Yes, it’s Harry!

No, not Harry Potter. Prince Harry. That House of Windsor guy.

It seems that the British Royal, now an active duty helicopter pilot in Afghanistan, is keen on undergoing astronaut training with NASA and flying aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. And better yet, for all you royal scandal lovers out there, Harry’s bid to become the first British royal in space could tear the British monarchy apart!

Maybe. Read on….


Virgin Galactic to Dedicate Spaceport America Terminal on Monday

 Virgin Galactic will take another step toward opening a new era of space travel by formally dedicating its new home at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico on Monday, Oct. 17, 2011. Sir Richard Branson will attend the event, which will include a press conference and dedication ceremony, along with more than 150 future Virgin Galactic astronauts from around the world. The Terminal Hangar Facility will serve as the operating hub for Virgin Galactic and will house up to two WhiteKnightTwos and five SpaceShipTwos, in addition to all of Virgin’s astronaut preparation facilities and mission control.

Virgin Galactic Inks $4.5 Million Deal With NASA for Research Flights

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

VG PR – MOJAVE, CA – Virgin Galactic has confirmed an order from NASA for up to three charter flights on its privately-built spacecraft to provide opportunities for engineers, technologists, and scientific researchers to conduct cutting-edge experiments in suborbital space. The agreement calls for NASA to charter a full flight from Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, and includes options for two additional charter flights. If all options are exercised, the contract value is $4.5 million.


Moses to Lead Virgin Galactic Operations

VG PR ― LAS CRUCES, N.M. ― Virgin Galactic is pleased to announce the appointment of former NASA executive Michael P. Moses as the Vice President of Operations. Just days prior to the dedication of the company’s operational headquarters at Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin has named the highly respected human spaceflight leader to oversee the planning and execution of all operations of the company’s commercial suborbital spaceflight program at the site.


Exasperated Virgin Galactic Space Tourism Founder Packs It In

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Seven year ago today, SpaceShipOne rocketed into space for the third and final time, claiming the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Amid the resulting euphoria, Sir Richard Branson promised to begin regular tourist flights in about three years with a follow-on spacecraft.

Ah, what a difference 2,556 days make. No one has flown suborbital since, commercial flights remain 18-24 months away, and some people have grown impatient:

Venture capitalist Alan Walton has trekked to the North Pole, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and skydived over Mount Everest. A hop into space to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness would have been the ultimate adventure.

After waiting seven years to fly aboard Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline, Walton gave up on the dream and asked for a $200,000 ticket refund on his 75th birthday this past spring.


Virgin Galactic to Begin Commercial Space Tourism Flights in…..

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

Attenborough: [Launching our first commercial flight] 18 months to two years from now is achievable, but that isn’t to say that we will achieve it. The only thing that will extend that expected timeline is if something comes up during the remainder of the test flight program.

Or so Virgin Galactic’s Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough tells The Wall Street Journal’s Chun Han Wong . The company’s founder, Richard Branson, has been making similar predictions for years now.


Whitesides: SpaceShipTwo Suborbital Flights By End of Next Year

Gear down. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

Aviation Week has an update on SpaceShipTwo’s progress:

George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC), says recent full-duration firing tests of the Sierra Nevada RM2 rocket motor are encouraging and point the way to integration with the SS2 early next year. Powered flight tests will begin with short-duration 15-sec. burns before building up to a full-duration suborbital flight before the end of 2012.

“We’ve got a bit more work to do,” Whitesides says. After more glide tests later this year to confirm aerodynamic and control improvements, he adds “next year we will integrate the motor and aim to conduct powered flights around the fall.”

Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada chairman and executive vice president, says a recent 55-sec. burn at the company’s Poway test facility near San Diego confirmed the hybrid motor is on track for integration. “We were encouraged by the power we got out of that. We’ve got the reaction up to where it needs to be.”

During an appearance at Stanford University on Tuesday, Virgin Galactic Vice President William Pomerantz said that the company has accepted payments for 450 seats totaling approximately $60 million.

Spaceship Company Opens Assembly Facility in Mojave

TSC PR ― MOJAVE, Calif. ― The Spaceship Company (TSC), the aerospace production joint venture of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, achieved a significant milestone in making commercial space travel a reality with today’s opening of its Final Assembly, Integration and Test Hangar, or FAITH, at Mojave Air and Space Port. The $8 million, modern, energy-efficient hangar supports the final stages of production for prime customer Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, and will add new jobs to the commercial space industry at spaceports in Mojave and New Mexico.


XCOR Signs Eight-Figure Deal With Space Expedition Curacao

XCOR PR — September 19, 2011, Mojave CA, USA and Curaçao:   Space Expedition Curaçao (SXC) and XCOR Aerospace, Inc. jointly announced today the completion of a multi-million dollar transaction that secures the wet lease of production Lynx tail number two for operation on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, pending export licensing action.

“Since we signed the initial Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in October of 2010, XCOR and SXC have worked diligently towards completing the Definitive Agreement,” explained XCOR CEO Jeff Greason.   “Now that the ink is dry and the check has cleared we can proceed at full pace to begin operations in Curaçao in 2014.”

[Editor’s Note:  The press release’s headline say this is an “eight figure” deal, meaning at least $10 million. To put this in perspective, Greason recently said that XCOR had spent $27 million since it was founded 12 years ago this month. XCOR’s cost for producing the first Lynx prototype is a tiny fraction of the $400 million that Virgin Galactic is spending on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. XCOR will begin Lynx test flights next fall.]


Conference Attendees to Tour Spaceport America

NMSA PR — Attendees at ISPCS 2011 will have an opportunity to tour the nearly-completed Spaceport America on Friday, Oct. 21, following the conference. Spaceport America and New Mexico Spaceport Authority (NMSA) staff members will provide attendees with exclusive insight into the project.

“On behalf of the NMSA, we are enthusiastic about hosting the ISPCS tour to Spaceport America this year,” said Christine Anderson, Executive Director of the Spaceport Authority. “I hope you will be as excited about the progress we have made as we are! The commercial space industry is making great strides and we are happy to be part of that bright future.”