Branson claims space as Virgin territory
FARNBOROUGH, England (MarketWatch) -- Between the anticipation of Sir Richard Branson's appearance and the wonderment of space travel, the mood in the Virgin Galactic tent Wednesday bordered on religious fervor.
At first, it was unnerving. In fact, had one of the dutiful staffers offered me a cup of lemonade, I would have declined.
Not that this fawning crowd was waiting to hitch a ride on Hale-Bopp. No, they had other designs on how to explore the universe. And, thanks to Sir Richard and the merry crew at Virgin Galactic, the childhood fantasy seems to be on the verge of becoming a reality.
Executives, investors, "future astronauts," reporters and the Branson family gathered at the Farnborough Air Show this week to wallow in the potential of venturing into what Branson dubbed "Virgin territory."
Ahead of the press conference, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides mingled with early arrivers, serving up the amount of optimism required of any corporate leader. At ease and exuding the affability of his high-profile boss, Whitesides spoke dreamily, to whomever lent an ear, of what it means to be bringing space travel to the masses.
After making the rounds, he took to the stage to announce that Virgin Galactic had just signed its 529th customer. No. 500 on the list is sitcom star and Demi Moore ex Ashton Kutcher. Up to this point, space has only been visited by 528 people, Whitesides explained. That means, within a couple of years, Virgin is planning to put more people in space than have been there throughout the entire course of human history.
And for a mere $20,000 down payment toward a $200,000 total, you, too, can be on your way, joining the ranks of reported astronauts-in-waiting Tom Hanks, Brangelina and Stephen Hawking.
"By a factor of 300, it's more affordable than what it costs to get up there now," Whitesides said on the sideline of the stage. Not that it matters for most of these passengers. At the event, customers unanimously waved off the fee as a pittance in the big picture.
One future astronaut poised to take advantage of the "savings" was a middle-aged man from Portugal named Angelo Araujo. He and I missed the first chartered shuttle from the train station, so the good folks at Virgin set us up with our own bus.
Araujo, visiting two daughters now living in London, had that wide-eyed gleam when he talked about what it would mean to him: "Since I was just a kid, this has always been a dream. A chance to peek at the universe."
That sentiment was echoed throughout the breakfast session. An eavesdropper on any conversation among the customers was likely to hear this refrain: "When I was a boy ..."
Of course, it isn't only little boys dressed as grown-ups buying tickets. One woman told another that she'd grabbed a spot for her husband. And there it is: the ultimate gift for the man who has everything. When she lobbed out the idea of joining him, he told her: "Sorry, there's only one astronaut in the family."
There were representatives of three families in the crowd that had each come up with the down payment for the entire six-passenger vessel, effectively booking a $1 million–plus private flight. My family outings revolve around Chipotle.
After milling around for light-years, seemingly, it was just about time to welcome Branson to the festivities. One fellow asked me to snap a picture of him next to a Virgin Galactic aircraft replica. When I did, Branson swooped in and photobombed him. Let the fun begin.
He took to the stage shortly thereafter, and the press was every bit as enamored as the customers, suppliers and employees. If the guy next to me had a grape, he would have eagerly fed it to him. Hey, is that sweat on Sir Richard's brow? Quick, somebody pass me a fan.
This vibe was a far cry from the Boeing (BA) presser earlier in the week that focused on V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft. There, a reporter in the front row, right next to the exit door, leaned over and said, "We're in the perfect spot. We can take our pot shots and then escape safely."
Back to Richard and his minions. The event was shaped around Virgin Galactic's newest foray into the sky: Launcher One, a concept under development in which satellites are to be sent into space at relatively affordable prices. Branson called it a "shake-up of the whole satellite industry."
He thanked shareholder Aabar Investments from Abu Dhabi for making it possible. The first satellite launches are slated for 2016.
While that may have been the meat-and-potatoes portion of the program, the buzz was all about getting up into the skies.
The flight plan for SpaceShip 2, after being dropped by carrier White Knight 2, is to soar to the edge of space, some 60 miles high, allowing passengers to float weightless for about five minutes, taking in the views, before the aircraft glides back to Earth. Virgin is also mapping out plans for a space station at some point.
From the dais, Branson announced -- he said they didn't know about it -- that his kids would join him in space for the first time next year. Everybody else could come soon after.
Holly and Sam Branson, a few seats over from investor Ross Perot Jr., sat in the front row. They were surrounded by swarming paparazzi who would only give them a break when the Champagne and seared ahi started to be passed around.
Mama Branson was right next to them. The spry nonagenarian and her soon-to-turn-62 son had just gotten back from swimming with whale sharks in Mexico. They arrived by chopper. Sam, as Richard told us, was rather white-knuckled about the ride. We'll see what that bodes for his space flight.
Sir Richard ended his official presentation with a quote from "the most enthusiastic future Virgin Galactic astronaut," Stephen Hawking: "To confine our attentions to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit."
With that, Branson began hours of obliging the press, mainly the TV cameras. He leaned out of a replica SpaceShip 2 for a photo op. He mugged for chirpy interviewers in red tops. He acknowledged doting fans who pressed against a barrier to get a closer look.
The print guys had to resort to chasing him around in a mobile scrum, scrapping for quotes, even if it meant following the space trailblazer into that most pedestrian of locations. Yes, the men's room. That's when I pulled the rip cord.