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.


Virgin Galactic Sending Mixed Messages to Its Own Engineers

“We do [have a date for beginning commercial operations], but what we don’t do is announce it publicly. And the reason for that is just that I don’t want to put schedule pressure on our engineers. You know, schedule pressure was essentially what caused Challenger….We’re getting close. We hope to get to space next year, and start commercial operations as soon as we can after that. I don’t give out a date. We don’t give out a date outside the company, but we’re getting close.”

— Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides
on The Space Show with David Livingston
Nov. 4, 2011

“Commercial spaceship travel is, I think, about a year away….Hopefully, by next Christmas, myself my daughter and my son will be the first people to go up into space.”

— Sir Richard Branson
in The Hague (see video above)
Nov. 14, 2011

If everything goes smoothly, “we would hope to be flying people to space by 2013.”

— Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough
at an international media and marketing conference in Singapore
Nov. 14, 2011

Oops. Looks like some people didn’t get the memo.

Those poor engineers. Their respite from the pressures of publicly announced commercial start dates didn’t even last two weeks. 🙁


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.


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.


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.


Space Business Panel Set for Next Week at Stanford

(Credit: PRNewsFoto/Zero Gravity Corporation, Al Powers)

Space Exploration: Not Just for Billionaires Anymore

Tuesday, September 20, 2011
6:00pm – 7:00pm – Networking and Refreshments
7:00pm – 8:30pm – Panel Discussion and Q&A

Stanford Graduate School of Business, Cemex Auditorium
655 Knight Way, Stanford, CA 94305-7298

Event Description:

Advances in payload and transport technology have made it easier than ever for entrepreneurs to launch into space – some for less than even $1M in capital. Entrepreneurs are now exploring opportunities with new rocket launchers, novel uses of affordable small satellites, space tourism, and even space-based power generation and extraterrestrial mining. The space market is already a $280B business.


Virgin Galactic’s Chief Test Pilot Takes Controls of WhiteKnightTwo for First Time

VG PR — To date, all test flights of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo have been piloted by Scaled Composite’s cadre of talented test pilots.

WhiteKnightTwo took to the air for the 72nd time yesterday (8/31/2011); it was a special flight for Virgin Galactic because at the controls, for the very first time, was our own Chief Test pilot, Dave Mackay. Dave joined Virgin Galactic in 2009 following a high-flying aviation career as an RAF test pilot and a Virgin Atlantic Captain.


Virgin Galactic vs. XCOR: Two Very Different Approaches

Space Up Houston August 2011 from Schipul – The Web Marketing Co. on Vimeo.

Virgin Galactic’s Will Pomerantz and XCOR Aerospace’s Khaki McKee both gave updates on their companies’ suborbital vehicles during the recent Houston SpaceUp conference. For the benefit of those who don’t have time to watch the full video above, I’ve summarized their presentations below in a convenient side-by-side table to allow for an easy comparison.


Video: NMSA’s Christina Anderson Talks About Spaceport America

New Mexico Spaceport Authority Executive Director Christine Anderson talks about the development and future of Spaceport America. Some highlights from the El Paso Times article:

The first phase of construction of Spaceport America, New Mexico’s $209 million commercial spaceflight launch complex, is 90 percent complete.

Virgin Galactic, the spaceport’s anchor tenant, plans to dedicate the terminal-hangar sometime in October….

Sir Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Galactic, has not said exactly when the aerospace company will take space tourists from its future headquarters at Spaceport America on suborbital flights to the edge of space. At his request, the terminal-hangar has been named the Virgin Galactic Gateway To Space.

Various space aviation experts have suggested that Virgin Galactic may launch its first space tourist flights sometime in 2013…..

Anderson is convinced that the spaceport will eventually rely less on the state government as a primary source of money. “Our goal is to be self-sustaining,” she said.

Read the full story.

Video: SpaceUp Houston’s Commercial Space Panel

Space Up Houston August 2011 from Schipul – The Web Marketing Co. on Vimeo.

A video of the Commercial Spaceflight panel at SpaceUp Houston that featured:

  • Will Pomerantz: Virgin Galactic
  • Neil Milburn: Armadillo Aerospace
  • Khaki McKee: XCOR Aerospace
  • Mike Burghardt – The Boeing Company
  • John Curry – Sierra Nevada Corporation
  • Jeff Patton: United Launch Alliance.

Virgin Galactic to Fly NASA Payloads to Space

VSS Enterprise on its first test flight. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

VG PR — Virgin Galactic, the world’s first commercial spaceline, owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Aabar Investments PJS, has been selected by NASA to provide flight opportunities for engineers, technologists and scientific researchers to fly technology payloads into space. This arrangement marks the first time that NASA has contracted with a commercial partner to provide flights into space on a suborbital spacecraft, and represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.


NASA Selects 7 Companies for Suborbital Research Flights

SpaceShipTwo glides downward on its first test flight. (Photo: Mark Greenberg)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA has selected seven companies to integrate and fly technology payloads on commercial suborbital reusable platforms that carry payloads near the boundary of space. The selected companies are:

— Armadillo Aerospace, Heath, Texas
— Near Space Corp., Tillamook, Ore.
— Masten Space Systems, Mojave, Calif.
— Up Aerospace Inc., Highlands Ranch, Colo.
— Virgin Galactic, Mojave, Calif.
— Whittinghill Aerospace LLC, Camarillo, Calif.
— XCOR, Mojave, Calif.

As part of NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, each successful vendor will receive an indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract. These two-year contracts, worth a combined total of $10 million, will allow NASA to draw from a pool of commercial space companies to deliver payload integration and flight services. The flights will carry a variety of payloads to help meet the agency’s research and technology needs.


George Whitesides: Virgin Galactic Making Good Progress

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides gave two talks at NASA Ames this morning — the first at the NewSpace 2011 Conference and another for the students at the Singularity University.

Whitesides’ 30-minute address to the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual gathering followed a familiar script, with updates on testing (going great), sales (growing steadily), the Spaceship Company (hiring rapidly), and the engine development (making progress). He used up most of his time making the address, and then took three questions before time ran out.

The Singularity University presentation seems to have been more freewheeling and, according to one person who saw both, much better than his NewSpace address. Whitesides touches upon of what it’s like to work for Richard Branson (great), the competition (we like it), and ITAR (bad, very very bad).

My notes on the NewSpace presentation follow. I’ve also included a collection of Tweets on Whitesides’ Singularity University session.