By next Christmas the airline mogul could be ferrying paying customers outside the atmosphere—and, later, to the bottom of the ocean.
By MARY KISSEL
'I wanted to create a spaceship where myself and my children could go into space, and our friends could go into space," exclaims billionaire CEO Richard Branson with his trademark toothy grin. Coming from someone else, this kind of talk might be considered mildly delusional. But in Mr. Branson's telling it's hard not to believe in the creativity of capitalism to better the world in ways you might not expect. Mr. Branson is in the Steve Jobs category of entrepreneurs—he believes that if he builds it, they will come.
I'm sitting with Mr. Branson in his Virgin Group's hip Bleecker Street offices, adorned with a big London Tube mural and modern art, ostensibly to talk about his new book, "Screw Business as Usual." Fine. After a long exposition from one of the world's best-known entrepreneurs on why it's okay to spend shareholder money on "the seemingly intractable problems in the world," I steer him into talking about his extreme tourism companies, Virgin Galactic and Virgin Oceanic.
"The best ideas come from people just wanting to create, like [Google co-founder] Larry Page in his garage just wanted to create a product that he could play with, and then you go and try to make sure that you can pay the bills at the end of the month," Mr. Branson says. He's flanked by Jean Oelwang, CEO of his empire's charitable arm, Virgin Unite, who doesn't seem pleased that I'm not interested in "high-impact social investment." But Mr. Branson is on a roll. "If I'd gone to the accountants and said, could you please work out the profit and loss of starting a spaceship company—especially when we didn't even have a spaceship—they would've laughed at me."
And for good reason. Governments have long dominated space, starting with the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik 1. The U.S. soon followed. "If they'd used just a small fraction of that money as prize money and given it to the best commercial companies, that money would've been far better spent," Mr. Branson muses. "The $10 million [Ansari] X Prize very much sparked our move into space travel," he notes, referring to the competition organized by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and launched in 1996.
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