Sir Richard Branson’s time in space was just a few minutes, but it was a journey 25 years in the making. During Wednesday's closing keynote at SATELLITE 2021, Branson shared with the audience that he looked to start a space business 25 years ago when he registered “Virgin Galactic” and somewhat ironically, “Virgin Intergalactic” as business names. This was the start of his journey into space, which recently culminated with the July 11 flight to suborbital space on the SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity vehicle.
Branson appeared virtually and spoke alongside Dan Hart, CEO of launch company Virgin Orbit. Branson called his launch company the “ultimate recycling example,” in terms of how it was started.
“We have all these wonderful rocket scientists, so we decided to work on Virgin Orbit. We found a way to put our old 747s to good use. We had a team working to see if we could lift a large rocket on the side of our large 747s,” Branson said of Virgin Orbit’s origins. “They have consistently put satellites into orbit, and we couldn’t be happier. If we hadn’t used the 747 for this purpose, it would have ended up in the scrapyard.”
One of the unique things about Virgin Orbit is its agility to put satellites into orbit by using the “air launch” technique, something that sets it apart from traditional launch providers. In a world where satellite infrastructure and the satellites themselves could come under attack, the ability to launch satellites in this manner could be a prized capability for national security.
“If a foreign power knocks satellites out of space, the great thing about Virgin Orbit is that we can scramble quickly and put satellites into orbit at very short notice. We are confident apart from the normal industry demand, there is another world out there who would like to use us. We think it can be a very effective deterrent. If a foreign power knows we have this capability, why would they then knock out satellites? This is why we can work with the likes of the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. governments.”
Virgin Orbit’s system can launch satellites from standard runways, making this possible nearly anywhere. New spaceports could emerge very quickly, and Virgin Orbit is in talks with a number of countries on this.
“There are 130 countries which don’t have launch capabilities. We can give them that,” Branson said. “There is a lot of excitement from different countries around the world in potentially having this capability.
Branson is clearly very proud of what Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit have achieved so far, and he believes this could be a golden era for the U.K. space industry. “There are exciting U.K. companies emerging in this area. There are a lot of brilliant British scientists that will give the world a run for their money.”
While Virgin Orbit is more than happy to launch satellites, Branson hopes Virgin will be able to partner with more people with ideas going forward. “I am an entrepreneur. We don’t mind people giving us a check to put things into space. But, we are more excited at the thought of partnering with people with great ideas. If there are people out there who have got ideas, there is an open door at Virgin Orbit.”
Fresh off of his milestone ride to space, Branson was asked if he would like to go to space again.
“I would love to go again,” he said. “The adrenaline has not worn off. It was more extraordinary than I ever imagined. Based on the waiting list, I will be in my nineties before I get a chance to go again.” VS