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Space, Satellites and Tea: An Interview with Richard Branson

It is early afternoon and I am about to speak with Richard Branson, another of the world’s iconic business people who is looking more and more to space for exciting new business opportunities. When I talk to Branson, he is on Necker Island, his luxury private island, which is in the process of being rebuilt after the Caribbean island sustained damage during Hurricane Irma. As I talk to him, I can hear the noise of building work going on the island. Before we do the interview, we talk about village life in the U.K. It feels like an everyday conversation.

Branson finds a quiet spot on the island to have a cup of tea while, back at my desk, I also have tea on hand. Then, we start a “very British interview” talking everything space and satellites over a cup of tea.

VIA SATELLITE: When did you start thinking about building a business in satellites and space? What were the origins of companies such as Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic?

Branson: It was quite some time ago. I was asked a question on a TV show on whether I would consider ever going into space and I responded “if you build a spacecraft I will go to space on it.” And actually, as I was walking out the studio, I thought “I would like to go to space.” I remember the Moon landings! So, I embarked on a mission to find a genius engineer to help build a space program with us. I was lucky enough to come across Burt Rutan.

And then, once we’d started building Virgin Galactic, it seemed like an obvious move that we should also have a separate company — Virgin Orbit — that could build the capability of putting satellites into space. We talked to a lot of people, saw people that wanted to put satellites into space and, specifically, people like the defense industry wanted to orbit satellites quickly and anywhere in the world. We thought that maybe we should actually be a bit unique in what we are doing in the satellite world and launch our satellites from a Boeing 747.

So, we could literally fly a 747 thousands of miles in any direction before we launched the rocket. That would give us an advantage over other people. If there was a need for speed to get a satellite up there, we could do it in 48 hours. Generally, people are waiting for slots. With a 747 as our launch platform, we can put each launch and each satellite exactly in the right trajectory for its purpose. Using a 747, if there was need for speed, would allow us to put a number of satellites up on the same day. Airplanes obviously are vehicles that, in terms of their course, get turned around in minutes in the commercial airline industry, so as far as that portion of our launch infrastructure is concerned, it could go up, orbit satellite, come back down, and attach satellites and go up again. So, it gives us something pretty much unique in the world and we decided to build a rocket that was big enough to put a number of small satellites up at the same time.

Now, we have three wonderful organizations. We have Dan Hart running Virgin Orbit; George Whitesides running Virgin Galactic; and The Spaceship Company building space ships and other things. This is how it all came about.

VIA SATELLITE: A lot of entrepreneurs in this area were often fascinated by space at a young age. Would the same apply to you? What are your first recollections of space?

Branson: Apart from Star Trek, it was really was the Moon landing. If I list two events that I can remember most clearly from my youth, one was the Moon landing and the second was Kennedy’s assassination. The Moon landing was completely captivating. Since then, my life has been made a lot of easier by the technologies that have been developed using space.

Obviously, what we are hoping to do with OneWeb is benefit the other 4 billion people that would benefit from being connected. I would have discussions with Greg Wyler on the bar at Necker Island, plotting and planning OneWeb. I think organizations like that will make a big difference. I have just come back from Bali, where people in the rural areas are not connected. It is great to be part of this revolution.

VIA SATELLITE: How would you compare the difficulty in building a business in space compared to others you have built? Are there a unique set of challenges/obstacles when trying to be successful in this industry?

Branson: Space projects are obviously difficult. They are some of the most difficult things we have ever taken on, and we have tried a lot of things over the years. Developing new complex things takes time whatever the industry.

For instance, when we decided to go into trains, we developed new state-of-the-art tilting trains. That project took four to five years and a lot of brain power. We ended up with a train car that is much safer, much more comfortable and much more stylish than anything we could have bought off the peg. We are now doing the same things with cruise ships, hotels and quite a lot of other things in other industries such as hyperloop [with Virgin Hyperloop One] and so on.

I think the space program is the pinnacle of all that. It takes out an incredible amount of energy and incredible teams to design a system that is extremely safe, and yet can be offered at a reasonable price. We have a lot of smart people.

We have connected our people at Virgin Atlantic with our team at Virgin Orbit, and with other of our Virgin companies, when they can lend a helping hand. For example, Virgin Atlantic helped sort out a tricky problem for Virgin Orbit recently. Virgin Orbit needed a specialty part for their 747 and, obviously, our team at Atlantic has a long track record and a global supply chain with a huge amount of experience with 747s, so they were able to help out.

VIA SATELLITE: You obviously have a lot of different type of business interests. How much attention do you give to your space businesses compared to others?

Branson: I give a lot of time and energy to them. But, I am not an engineer. I have started three airlines and can’t fly a plane either!

Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit are never far from my thoughts. I am on the phone to Dan Hart and George Whitesides three times a week. I like to be involved. I like to make sure we are taking care of our teams and our customers, and I like to be involved in something that will open up space to everybody.

I love visiting our rocket factories in California. There is something magical about standing next to a spaceship or a rocket, knowing that, in a very short time, it will help people fulfil their dreams and open up space to improve live for billions of people on this beautiful Earth that we live on.

VIA SATELLITE: There is this perception that the satellite industry has previously lacked innovation compared to say, perhaps, the wireless industry, for example. Do you believe this to be true? What can the satellite/space industries learn from other industries?

Branson: I think sending space probes to Pluto and sending people to Mars takes incredible innovation! But, I think there have been important opportunities and challenges that have been neglected until recently. I think government-run projects are not the best way of running things, or at least not the only good way. They have deep pockets but you need the innovation of private companies to really change things. On the other hand, there are things that private companies cannot afford to do, like for example, sending probes to Pluto.

I look at it like this: if the automobile industry only produced Ferraris, that wouldn’t be a great thing. It is nice to have an industry that makes something for everybody. So, Ferraris, Teslas, lorries, vans, pickup trucks, etc. I think space has been missing that until very recently. The likes of myself, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos will change all that — we’re making different types of rockets and serving different types of needs from each other, and from what has been there before.

VIA SATELLITE: Are you amazed in this day and age, that it takes years to build satellites and years to put them up into orbit?

Branson: Right now, everything is getting quicker and quicker. One of things about Virgin Orbit, is that you could build the satellite on a Monday, and we could have it up on Wednesday. If you had two or three satellites, they could go up the week they have been delivered. Things are going up much, much faster and I think over the next year they will get faster still.

VIA SATELLITE: What impact can Virgin Orbit have in the satellite sector? What will it look to bring to the sector?

Branson: Based on the demand we are seeing, we will bring a better way for small satellites to get to space. Even if you have the greatest satellite ever developed, it doesn’t do anyone any good if it is just sitting, waiting on the ground. So, you need to get it to space at the exact orbit you want it to go, at the exact time you want it to get there.

Hitchhiking to space has helped out a lot of people when it comes to testing out these new technologies, but it doesn’t really work once you need to start serving customers. When you have a customer depending on you, you need control over when you launch, and where you go. This is what Virgin Orbit can bring to the world.

Of course, we will do this with a constant focus on the customer, which Virgin is known for. Some of our customers have not been treated very well in the past by virtue to the fact they have been small add-ons to other peoples’ rides. We are going to treat them with the style and dignity they deserve.

VIA SATELLITE: Would you look to launch other Virgin businesses around space/satellites?

Branson: We are a founding shareholder of OneWeb. We are excited with what it has achieved to date.

We will certainly be investing in other companies that want to put products into space. On occasions, I suspect we might give reductions to putting a satellite into space for a stake in some of these newer companies. On occasions, we might help people if we believe it is a great cause.

For example, we had a non-for-profit approach us recently about collecting information about methane leaks around the world. This is incredibly important to know where these methane leaks are taking place. I am sure we would offer them a discount to enable them to get their satellites into space. We will be flexible. We obviously have to make ends meet but we will be as flexible as we can. If there are not-for-profits with really compelling stories, we would listen.

Another example is illegal fishing. I have a foundation that helps with ocean work. I am sure we would want to help get satellites up that look into illegal fishing. So, there are lots of wonderful things we can do with this company in the years to come. Providing internet services to the unconnected can transform many peoples’ lives. People can set up jobs on the back of it. They can get education, health advice. We are helping a foundation that is putting 50,000 nurses into remote areas in Africa. Their main weapon will be internet connectivity. Virgin Orbit will be putting a number of different satellites up for a number of different purposes.

VIA SATELLITE: It is said that satellite and space touches everybody’s lives in more ways than we know. Do you predict a bright future for this industry? Will it become more important in the next few years?

Branson: I hope so and I believe so. Everybody and everything wants to be connected all the time. When you provide a connection, everybody immediately wants a better one. So, you have just got to keep moving on keeping up with that demand — and satellites are very important in keeping up with that demand.

I think Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites will have an important role because they can offer low latency. They are a great complement to geostationary satellites and ground networks. In addition to providing more data to the bandwidth-hungry world we live in, it is particularly important as they can help the people that need it the most. It is relatively easy to get an internet connection in a big city in the United Kingdom or the United States. But, it is not practical to bring out cables into remote areas of the world. Those are the people that can really benefit from the same connectivity that the rest of us can enjoy.

VIA SATELLITE: Can satellites become more part of the mainstream or will it always be relegated to the margins?

Branson: It can certainly become more part of the mainstream if you have enough satellites up there. OneWeb is talking about four billion people in the remote areas. One that Greg Wyler learned was that LEO satellites and the new technology involved in them would be more effective than putting one or two big satellites a long way away. Elon Musk is talking about the same thing. It seems to be the way the world is going today.

It is certainly what our team at Virgin Orbit believes, that this is the future — satellites becoming very much part of the mainstream for everyone, everywhere. My work with Virgin takes me all over the world. Hopefully, very soon, I will find myself in a country that is launching its first satellite via Virgin Orbit.

VIA SATELLITE: Finally, how will the overall communications landscape change over the next two years? What role will Virgin play on this landscape with its space activities?

Branson: The trends toward more connections and more bandwidth are definitely not slowing down. It may well speed up as new people come online. The LEO constellations are proving their technologies in space and on the ground and they have already a lot of funding and a lot of talent. It is an exciting future. VS