Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

The right stuff

The first commercial flights into space will take place in the New Year, promises Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. Paul Hopkins considers the entrepreneur with stars in his eyes

If ever proof were needed that you don't necessarily need a formal education to reach for the stars, Richard Branson is a prime example. He and school never got along.

He is dyslexic and, like many of his generation who suffered the same fate, the education system in the 50s had no understanding of children with special needs and so the young Richard closed the book on formal schooling at 16 when he dropped out with no qualifications and began his entrepreneurship with the launch of a student magazine.

Next year Richard Branson is heading for the stars, or at least pretty close to them, when he presses the green light on Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShip Two commercial flights, making history by taking hundreds of space tourists on the first 'commercially viable' trips into the relatively great unknown.

To be one of the first to boldly go where man has never gone before – apart from the governments-sponsored 500 astronauts who have travelled into space, 12 having walked on the moon – you don't need a Harvard degree or any diploma in travelling the universe. All any of the hundreds who have booked the inaugural flights needs, says Sir Richard, is to be in excellent health, endure rigorous training, brush up on their Russian, and, oh, that all important ticket price of "tens of millions" of dollars.

Perhaps it was Branson's mother Eve's job as cabin crew that fired his ambition to set up Virgin Atlantic that changed the style of transatlantic travel, and now fuels his ambition for space travel.

Richard Charles Nicholas Branson was born on July 18, 1950, in Surrey, England. His father, Edward James Branson, worked as a barrister. His mother, Eve Branson, was employed as a flight attendant. Richard, with dyslexia, had a hard time at school. He nearly failed out of the all-boys Scaitcliffe School, which he attended until the age of 13. He then transferred to a boarding school in Stowe in Buckinghamshire.

Still struggling, Branson dropped out at the age of 16 to start a youth-culture magazine called Student. The publication, run by students, for students, sold £5,000 worth of advertising in its first edition, which was launched in 1966. The first run of 50,000 copies was disseminatedfor free, after Branson covered the costs with advertising.

By 1969, Branson was living in a London commune, surrounded by the British music and drug scene. It was during this time that he had the idea to begin a mail-order record company called Virgin to help fund his magazine efforts.

The company performed modestly, but still made Branson enough profit to be able to expand his business venture, adding a record shop in Oxford Street, London. With the success of the record shop, the high school drop-out was able to build and fund a recording studio in 1972 in Oxford and was soon well on his way to becoming the first of the young, modern British entrepreneurs.

The first artist signed by Virgin Records was Mike Oldfield, who recorded his renowned TubularBells in 1973 with the help of Branson's team.

The recording was an instant hit, staying in the UK charts for 247 weeks. Using the momentum of Oldfield's success, Branson then signed other aspiring musicians to his new label, including the Sex Pistols. Artists such as the Culture Club, the Rolling Stones and Genesis would follow, helping to make Virgin Music one of the top six record companies in the world.

Branson expanded his entrepreneurial efforts yet again, this time to include travel company the Voyager Group in 1980, the airline Virgin Atlantic in 1984, and a series of Virgin Megastores.

But Branson's success was not always predictable. By 1992, Virgin was suddenly struggling to stay financially afloat. The company was sold later that year to Thorn EMI for $1bn (£0.61bn).

Branson was crushed by the loss, reportedly crying after the contracts were signed, but remained determined to stay in music.

IN 1993, HE FOUNDED VIRGIN RADIO, AND SEVERAL YEARS LATER HE STARTED A SECOND RECORD COMPANY, V2. FOUNDED IN 1996, V2 NOW INCLUDES ARTISTS SUCH AS TOM JONES. RICHARD BRANSON'S VIRGIN GROUP NOW HOLDS MORE THAN 200 COMPANIES IN MORE THAN 30 COUNTRIES, INCLUDING, APART FROM THE UK, THE US, AUSTRALIA, CANADA, ASIA, EUROPE AND SOUTH AFRICA.

HE HAS EXPANDED HIS BUSINESSES TO INCLUDE A TRAIN COMPANY, A LUXURY AFRICAN GAME PRESERVE, A MOBILE PHONE COMPANY AND, OF COURSE, THAT SPACE-TOURISM COMPANY, VIRGIN GALACTIC. BRANSON IS ALSO KNOWN FOR HIS SPORTING ACHIEVEMENTS, NOTABLY THE RECORD-BREAKING ATLANTIC CROSSING IN VIRGIN ATLANTIC CHALLENGER II IN 1986 AND THE FIRST CROSSING BY HOT-AIR BALLOON OF THE ATLANTIC (1987) AND PACIFIC (1991).

HE WAS KNIGHTED IN 1999 AND, IN 2009, HE LANDED AT NO. 261 ON FORBES' "WORLD BILLIONAIRES" LIST WITH HIS $2.5BN (£1.51BN) IN SELF-MADE FORTUNE, WHICH INCLUDES TWO PRIVATE ISLANDS.

IN RECENT YEARS, THE EVER-ADVENTUROUS BRANSON HAS FOCUSED MUCH OF HIS ATTENTION ON HIS SPACE TOURISM VENTURE.

HE PARTNERED WITH SCALED COMPOSITES TO FORM THE SPACESHIP COMPANY, AND, IN APRIL 2013, THE PROJECT MADE AN IMPRESSIVE LEAP FORWARD WITH THE TEST LAUNCH OF SPACESHIPTWO.

BRANSON WAS DELIGHTED BY THE SUCCESS OF HIS SPACESHIP'S FIRST TEST, TELLING NBC NEWS THAT "WE'RE ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED THAT IT BROKE THE SOUND BARRIER ON ITS VERY FIRST FLIGHT, AND THAT EVERYTHING WENT SO SMOOTHLY".

BY OCTOBER 2013, MORE THAN 800 PEOPLE HAD SIGNED UP, WITH THEIR TENS OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS IN DEPOSITS, FOR THEIR BIG ADVENTURE.

BRANSON IS VERY GUARDED ABOUT HIS PRECISE PLANS FOR SPACE TRAVEL. "AS AN ENTREPRENEUR, I HAVE SEEN MANY EXAMPLES OF TECHNOLOGIES THAT ARE BROUGHT INTO EXISTENCE BY GOVERNMENTS BUT SHOW THEIR TRUE POTENTIAL ONLY WHEN UNLOCKED TO THE PRIVATE SECTOR,'' HE SAYS.

"PROGRESS IN HUMAN SPACE FLIGHT HAS BEEN SLUGGISH PRECISELY BECAUSE THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL GOVERNMENTS HAVE WANTED TO KEEP IT FOR THEMSELVES.''

NOW VIRGIN GALACTIC IS ON TRACK TO BE THE WORLD'S FIRST COMMERCIAL SPACELINE.

"OUR MISSION," SAYS BRANSON, "IS TO TRANSFORM ACCESS TO SPACE FOR THE BENEFIT OF LIFE ON EARTH.''

AND HE ADDS THAT IN A SECRET LOCATION IN AMERICA'S MOJAVE DESERT MORE THAN 300 "TALENTED" MEN AND WOMEN ARE WORKING AWAY ON BUILDING AND OPERATING VIRGIN'S FIRST SPACESHIPS.

BRANSON IS MARRIED TO HIS SECOND WIFE, JOAN TEMPLEMAN, WITH WHOM HE HAS TWO CHILDREN: HOLLY AND SAM. HE CURRENTLY LIVES IN LONDON.

SPEAKING LAST WEEK, SIR RICHARD SAID: "MY CHILDREN HOLLY AND SAM AND I ARE GETTING OUR MINDS AROUND THE FACT THAT WE WILL ON THE INAUGURAL FLIGHT COME 2014."

LIKE ONE OF THOSE HEROES IN THE MOVIE THE RIGHT STUFF, YOU GET THE IMPRESSION LISTENING TO RICHARD BRANSON – INDEED, LOOKING AT HIS MYRIAD ACHIEVEMENTS – THAT HE IS MADE OF THAT KIND OF STUFF, SCHOOLING OR NO, THAT MAKE MEN REACH FOR THE STARS.

AND, AT LEAST, GET HALFWAY THERE.

'WE'VE JUST COME TO TERMS WITH BEING ON THE FIRST FLIGHT'

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