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Space travel, Issue 1374
Is Virgin Galactic nearly there yet?
WHEN will Sir Richard Branson launch himself into space? “What people forget is that it is rocket science,” he quipped in February. “It is complicated. But now every box has been ticked and we’re nearly there.” Er, how nearly? “We have a launch date this summer… By September, I hope to have gone to space.”

September is upon us, so presumably Beardie Lightyear is now aboard his rocket, preparing to slip the surly bonds of earth with a cry of “To infinity and beyond!” Or, on past form, perhaps not…

May 1999: Branson announces he is planning a hotel in space and has registered a company called “Virgin Galactic Airways” to ferry guests into orbit. “I hope in five years a reusable rocket will have been developed.” So that’ll be 2004, then.

September 2004: Branson signs a deal to build rockets modelled on SpaceShipOne, created by the designer Burt Rutan. Virgin Galactic plans to start construction next year “and to offer flights by 2007”.

October 2004: Although many people have already told him they want to boldly go for a trip aboard his spaceship, Branson says the first flight will be reserved for him and his family. “My dad has put his hand up and will be 90 at the time.” Which means a launch in 2008.

April 2007: Well, almost. Branson tells a trade show in California that SpaceShipTwo will be unveiled “early next year”, followed by a year of flight tests and then a maiden commercial launch “in 2009”.

February 2008: Branson appears on PBS’s Charlie Rose Show in America. “Tell me about space and what you hope to do,” says Rose. “Well,” Branson replies, “we’re a couple of years away from Virgin Galactic being finished…”

May 2008: “Countdown begins to first Galactic take-off” is the exciting headline in Travel Weekly. “Virgin Galactic boss Sir Richard Branson has revealed he is expecting the inaugural flight of his space shuttle to take place in two-and-a-half years’ time.” Which takes us to – oh, let’s see – November 2010.

December 2009: The 300 people who have booked space-rides with Virgin Galactic, at $200,000 a go, are invited to see SpaceShipTwo at Virgin’s base in the Mojave desert, California. Branson proudly tells them regular flights will begin “in 2011”.

April 2011: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin and governor Arnold Schwarzenegger are among 600 guests who watch WhiteKnightTwo land at San Francisco airport, to mark the reopening of the Virgin America terminal. “I hope 18 months from now, we’ll be sitting in our spaceship and heading off into space,” Branson says. That would be October 2012.

April 2013: True, 2012 has come and gone, but fear not! “I will be going up on the first flight, which I hope will be December 25th of this year,” Branson reveals. “Maybe I’ll dress up as Father Christmas.”

May 2013: Branson is keynote speaker at the National Achievers Conference in Adelaide. Only 500 people to date have ever been into space, he says, but very soon Virgin Galactic will take that number every year. “It isn’t rocket science – well, actually it is!” he quips.

January 2014: The Sunday Times starts serialising a “scathing new biography” of Branson by Tom Bower. Despite Branson’s company amassing $80m in fares and deposits, Bower writes, he still has no licence to fly these would-be passengers and no rocket proven to be powerful enough to do so. This provokes a huffy letter from George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, who says the company expects to receive its licence in plenty of time for “commercial service later in 2014”.

February 2014: Interviewing Branson in Dubai, a reporter from Al Arabiya TV points out that lift-off was once scheduled for 2007. “What I have realised is that it is rocket science,” Branson quips. But there will be no more setbacks. “We should be going into space in about three or four months’ time. If myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year I’d be very, very, very worried.”

March 2014: Branson is in ebullient mood on Jonathan Ross’s ITV show. “If we can get enough people wanting to fly,” he babbles, “we can start building Virgin hotels in space, we can start doing trips to Mars, we can colonise Mars, we can start pulling asteroids back to Earth to see what minerals they have got in them.” He is so overexcited he chucks a glass of water over Wossie.

May 2014: On a flying visit to Scotland, Branson tells the Edinburgh Evening News he is confident – and “ridiculously excited” – that Virgin Galactic’s first flight into space “will happen this year”. Alas! The Sunday Times then reveals Branson’s hopes of launching his family into space this summer have been dashed, after defects were found in the launch plane’s wings. Virgin Galactic confirms that neither the launch plane nor the spaceship has had a test-flight since January. “We’re late, there is no question,” says CEO Whitesides.

July 2014: “Space travel is inherently difficult,” Whitesides observes, in an op-ed piece for the Daily Telegraph, “but there is no reason why it needs to remain so expensive or so infrequent… Soon, Virgin Galactic will start its commercial operations.” How soon is soon? He won’t say. Rocket science, innit?

More top stories in the latest issue:

New BBC Trust chair Rona’ Fairhead needs to be more alert over standards than she was at HSBC.

The Queen’s stance on Melted Alaska-gate.

Collapsing health services are good news for management consultants who pick over the carcass.

The Oxfam trustee who knows all about tax havens.

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