Launch date for Virgin Galactic is still up in the air
But Richard Branson reckons it’s ‘tantalisingly close’
Planet Earth in 50 years: what might it look like? Few people are more qualified to provide an interesting response than Richard Branson. He is far more at risk of getting lost in the future, chasing his dreams of space travel, than ever getting stuck in the mud of the past.And according to the billionaire Virgin chief? Stephen Hawking was wrong when he said that the survival of humanity hangs on colonising another planet – we’d be far better off if we just stopped cattle farming. No, hotels will not have replaced human staff with robots. Yes, Virgin Galactic will finally have taken flight. And if he has anything to do with it, illegal drugs won’t exist and the US will have abolished the death penalty.
Branson, 67, is bright eyed and bushy bearded, with a perma-grin that feels in no way contrived.What does he make of Stephen Hawking’s solemn warning, a year before his death this year, that humankind’s only hope for survival is to colonise another planet?
“I wouldn’t be so bleak as to say that,” he says. “We have a magnificent Earth that we live on and we have to fight to protect it and make it better, or at the very least try not to make it worse than it already is.
“I think mankind should be able to do that. We should be able to come up with the technology to combat climate change and a lot of that technology now exists. We should be able to create products that enable us not to have more and more cattle that will ultimately destroy the rainforest. We should be able to create massive nature reserves in our oceans that enable fish to replenish their stocks, and we’ve got to. Getting distracted thinking there is an escape hole in Mars is a mistake.”It would be wonderful, he argues, to try to colonise another planet, but space companies’ principle role should (for now at least) be trying to help things back home on this one.
So how far off is Virgin Galactic? It’s a question he can’t help but chuckle at, given the somewhat ludicrous number of times the launch date has been moved back. His mother put it well when, four years ago, she said of her hopes to join Branson on board his rocket ship: “I think it’s the end of the year … it’s always the end of the year.”
Branson says: “I’ve been 13 years at it now. The space race is fascinating, exciting and challenging but I think we’re almost there – I’ve said that before. We’ve got 800 engineers working hard at Virgin Galactic, another 100 working at Virgin Orbit [announced last March, with plans to provide launch services for small satellites] and it’s coming to a climax.”He’s up against some solid competition from the likes of Elon Musk, whose company SpaceX is designing its own rocket for interplanetary travel, and Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, who’s convinced that his space initiative Blue Origin will ultimately save our civilisation. They’re two “very big guys”, Branson concedes, who he counts as friends as well as rivals.“Rocket science is difficult, and this is a competition to deliver a really safe product for thousands of people who would love to become astronauts,” he says of his intentions. “We’ve had one test flight, we’ve got another one coming up in the next few days, then we’ll have another one to the edge of space, and then hopefully into space, so it’s tantalisingly close. We’ve had tears, we’ve had happy moments, and I think the team deserves some good fortune now, so we’ll see how the next few months go.”
It’s a little ironic that here is a man who says he’s concerned with the issues of climate change, at the helm of a major airline. But, amid all the talk of flying and its associated carbon footprint, cattle farming is said to be responsible for the production of more greenhouse gases than planes, cars and all other forms of transport put together.“I’ve stopped eating beef,” he says, and not just because of global warming. “The more cattle you have in the world, the more the rainforests are going to disappear, acre by acre.” Does he miss red meat? “Not at all, there are plenty of alternatives.”
At least two of them he’s invested with: Beyond Meat, which manufactures a vegetable-based substitute; and Memphis Meats, a Bill Gates-backed San Francisco start-up that’s developing a way to grow real meat and fish in a laboratory using tiny samples from live animals.
© The Daily Telegraph