Sir Richard Branson, Britain’s best-known billionaire, has seen much of his business empire hammered during the pandemic. Virgin Atlantic was forced to shed almost half of its 10,000 staff as aircraft were grounded; his Virgin Active gyms were forced to close; and having been just about to embark on Virgin Voyages’ maiden cruise this time last year, he is now about to mothball its second ocean liner.
Despite those challenges, all three businesses remain primed to get back in the air, on the treadmill and to sail the oceans once the worst of the pandemic is finally behind us. The reason: space.
Some – actually, many – laughed when Sir Richard first spoke of his ambition to build commercial and consumer space businesses almost 20 years ago. I should know: I was one of those sceptics when I broke the story of Virgin Galactic’s launch, as Sir Richard is quick to remind me. But, as he points out, it is because of that diversification that the rest of the Virgin empire has survived Covid.
The listing of space tourism business Virgin Galactic, which is now valued on the New York Stock Exchange at almost £10bn, allowed Sir Richard to pump £200m into a £1.2bn rescue deal of his cherished transatlantic airline. The fact that Galactic shares went stratospheric meant he could also ensure many of his other businesses, including the cruise and gym arms, were also given enough financing to survive.
“I must admit,” says Sir Richard, “if somebody had said two years ago that we were going to have the worst shutdown in the world and your spaceship companies are going to be the things that save you, I don’t think any of my fellow directors would have believed it.”
But space it is that has rescued the group – and it is now providing the most exciting period in the pioneering businessman’s career.
In around a year’s time, Virgin Orbit is aiming to become the first company to reach space from British soil, from the unassuming Spaceport Cornwall.
Spaceport, which sits on the edge of Newquay Airport, will be one of three bases around the world from which Virgin jumbo jets will take off, each with a rocket containing a small satellite nestled beneath its wing – satellites that will offer services from military observation to giving a real-time picture of global warming.
Last month’s successful rocket launch from the Mojave desert in California makes the space business’s arrival into Cornwall an inevitability, rather than the pie in the sky dream it was considered.
So why Cornwall? Part of the reason is that Sir Richard has fond memories of holidaying there as a child, but also because of the efforts of the county in getting full-square behind his ambition.
“Its location works really well, allowing us to take off over the sea, and the support from the likes of Cornwall Council and Spaceport have been tremendous,” he says.
Virgin Orbit could follow Galactic onto the stock market
Sir Richard Branson is considering a multi-billion-dollar stock market launch of satellite business Virgin Orbit following the successful listing of space tourism group Virgin Galactic last year.
Chief executive Dan Hart told i that a listing was among the fundraising options as the group gets within a year of beginning regular satellite deliveries in lower Earth orbit from three main bases – Mojave in California, Oita in Japan and Spaceport Cornwall, in South West England.
Mr Hart said a listing was among the options being considered, alongside further external investment. Virgin Orbit is currently 80 per cent owned by the Virgin Group, with Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund Mubadala holding the remaining 20 per cent.
“We’re looking at a couple of different options,” said Mr Hart. “We are very much in the process of starting to have discussions with people who are interested.”
Mr Hart added investors interest increased significantly after Virgin Orbit first successful launch of a rocket into orbit last month.
Sir Richard also hints that it might not just be satellites launching from Newquay. There is, in his view, no reason why his Virgin Galactic business could not send space tourists beyond Earth’s atmosphere from south-west England in the near future as well.
Saturday (13 February) is another important day in that space tourism dream. In the evening, Virgin Galactic is due to make another attempt to send its spaceship into orbit. If successful, another will follow in the coming months with the all-important third by the end of this year.
All-important because Sir Richard intends to be on it. Any nerves? “I’m not nervous. I’m just ridiculously excited. But I’ve been excited for 14 years.”
Never one to pass up a great opportunity to publicise his businesses, it is unlikely you will find anyone willing to gamble against Sir Richard showing up at June’s G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, just an hour away from Spaceport Cornwall. The prospect of having his Cosmic Girl jumbo on the tarmac as President Biden arrives in Air Force One must have him licking his lips.
“There are some sort of discussions going on about doing something in Cornwall around G7,” he says. Translated, that means: “You try and keep me away.”
Why Cornwall is set to become a world leader in space
Melissa Thorpe is wearing a t-shirt that wouldn’t look out of place on the Star Ship Enterprise. And with a Canadian accent she could be mistaken for being cast in a remake.
But there’s nothing fictional behind the reason for her attire. As the head of Spaceport Cornwall – two words you may have thought would never be put together – she is set to boldy go where no other UK company has gone before. To the final frontier.
What is Spaceport Cornwall?
“Spaceport Cornwall is a consortium made up of Cornwall Council, Virgin Orbit and Goonhilly Earth station,” says Ms Thorpe. “It’s basically creating a horizontal launch facility at Cornwall Airport Newquay for the first time ever in the UK, and we’re looking to launch small satellites to low Earth orbit by 2022.”
Really? You’re not joking?
“When this project first started over six years ago, we definitely got laughed at. But we’ve worked really hard over the last six years to get to the point where infrastructure is going on site and we’ve secured most the funding that we require.
When will we see the first launch?
“It was due to be this year in October 2021,” she says. “But, due to the pandemic, we have had to push it out. So, we’ll be looking at early next year.
“The UK build the large majority of the world’s small satellites, but at the minute, we can’t launch them here. So, they all go overseas to launch. We want to capture that in the UK, so they can come down and be launched in Cornwall.”