July 12, 2021
Over the years, brash British billionaire Richard Branson has embarked on all sorts of wild adventures, from the dangerously ill-conceived to the merely zany—from attempting a powerboat speed record across the English Channel in seas so choppy it “was like being strapped to the blade of a vast pneumatic drill,” as he wrote in his memoir; to crossing the Pacific Ocean in a hot-air balloon and crashing on a frozen lake in Canada, The Washington Post reports.
Now, the one-man publicity circus—still very much alive and kicking at age 70—is preparing for what would be the biggest stunt of all: A rollicking ride to the edge of space in the spaceplane developed by Virgin Galactic—the venture he founded in 2004 that he vowed would become the world’s first “commercial spaceline.”
Virgin Galactic announced this week that Stephen Colbert would host the live-stream broadcast of the event—now scheduled for Sunday, July 11, although weather and last-minute technical problems could force a delay.
And the company also intends to use Branson’s flight as a catalyst to reopen ticket sales for its space tourism business, the Post reports. It had previously cost $250,000 for the flight, which would allow passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. But when the tickets go back on sale, the price is expected to jump to about $500,000, according to analysts.
Like Branson’s previous exploits, the flight from Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America in New Mexico will be as much theater as adventure, designed to sell tickets as well as to celebrate the commercialization of human space exploration. But that is to be expected from the man who made his start by signing the Sex Pistols to his record label and who’s lived by the motto, “screw it, let’s do it.”
The company had planned to fly a test flight with four crew members in the cabin, and then fly Branson. But after Jeff Bezos announced he would fly on his company’s spacecraft to the edge of space on July 20, Branson jumped the line and said he would board Virgin Galactic’s next space flight and — conditions permitting—beat Bezos by nine days.
In making the announcement, Branson simultaneously reveled in the attention it generated while downplaying any competition. He told The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, “I completely understand why the press would write that.” He added that it was just “an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”
But when asked about a rivalry with Bezos on CNBC, he couldn’t help himself, saying, “Jeff who?”
Research contact: @washingtonpost