Virgin Galactic’s commercial director — and the space brand’s first employee — has provided an interesting look at the business behind the scenes that brought founder Richard Branson to tears.
Stephen Attenborough said that he was initially brought on as the first person working within Virgin Galactic 15 years ago, in what was supposed to be a short-term gig.
“I came here for three months, 15 years ago, to help Richard and the team,” he said in a presentation at the CEBIT business technology conference in Sydney on Thursday (30 October).
But he has remained with the company ever since, describing Virgin as an “incredible brand” that has “never been about a single industry”, product or service, but about “a way of doing business”.
And it is founder Mr Branson’s trademark flare that has continued to drive developments within Virgin Galactic.
Ships successfully launch into space
Mr Attenborough said that, in terms of venturing into space, “most people want to do this” but that there have not been commercial options available, severely restricting access for the bulk of humanity.
“Hardly anybody has been there... it’s a classic Virgin business,” he said.
“Nobody has really been given access.”
He said that “access to space is still a very narrow footpath” and that all of the commercial players “want to take the existing footpath and broaden it into a highway”.
According to Mr Attenborough, of more than 7 billion people currently inhabiting Earth, only 573 have ventured into space in the last six decades, or 50 years since the moon landing.
He said that Virgin Galactic, along with the other commercial players entering the space race, is trying to facilitate this untapped demand and, in doing so, “absolutely transform our business and personal relationships with space”.
The company made its first successful launch into space on 13 December 2018, and “went a little faster, we went a little higher” in February this year, taking chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses [whose role will be to provide training for passengers once commercial operations begin] as the first civilian passenger into space.
Since that time, Mr Attenborough explained that Virgin Galactic has been transitioning from the spaceship development phase in California’s Mojave Desert in the US down to the state of New Mexico, from where commercial operations will take place.
Virgin Galactic lists on stock exchange
Just this week, Virgin Galactic announced that it had become the first human spaceflight company to become a public company, after it floated on the New York Stock Exchange under the codename SPCE.
It represented a significant step in the evolution of the business, and provided access to additional investment.
“Thank you for your commitment to our great company, which has made today’s exciting announcement possible,” Mr Branson said to investors, customers, partners and employees at the start of trading, after ringing the bell to formally open trading.
“With our proprietary spaceflight system, special airspace access at Spaceport America, globally recognised brand and broad investor interest, we believe Virgin Galactic is ideally positioned to capitalise on the fast-growing, multibillion-dollar commercial space market and ultimately open space to thousands of new astronauts.
“Today, we accomplished one mission, and as we bring more and more future astronauts to space, we look forward to accomplishing many more.”
Speaking in Sydney about the listing, Mr Attenborough said it was somewhat disappointing that the exchange had limited them to only four letters, meaning the word “space” had to be abbreviated.
What will space travel look and feel like?
For those keen to understand what space passengers can expect, Mr Attenborough said there will be an intensive but luxurious training course over multiple days prior to the flight.
As well as a range of medical checks required for safety reasons, the training will be very focused on simulation sessions, because passengers need to be prepared for the “sensory overload”.
The journey into space will be from an air-launch system, rather than the existing ground-launch rockets, which will make the aircraft reusable for repeat journeys, in turn making civilian spaceflights commercially feasible.
Flights will then take off in the early morning, and apart from getting aboard a “catamaran”-style ship, the initial journey won’t feel much different from a standard airline take-off.
Things change when the aircraft reaches a height of 50,000 feet, when the passenger jet — linked between the two arms of the larger aircraft — detaches, producing a small sinking feeling in the stomach, and becoming noticeably quieter as the craft drops away from the engines of its carrier aircraft.
That is before the rocket engine kicks in, he said, getting to around 3.5Gs and supersonic speed in around seven seconds.
It’s not long before the pilots pull back sharply on the throttle, turning the nose vertically to punch the aircraft out of Earth’s atmosphere and into space.
“One of the pilots said, ‘You know that thing where people say in space you can’t hear anybody scream — you definitely can!’,” Mr Attenborough said of Ms Moses’ February test flight.
Passengers will then get to experience “the joys of weightlessness” and take their seatbelts off to float around the cabin, and take in through the windows of the blackness of space contrasted by the vibrant luminescence of Earth.
Coming back down to Earth should be a fairly smooth ride once back within the atmosphere at 70,000 feet, when the wings take hold for a steady glide back to earth.
There are also additional perks back on terra firma for returning certified civilian astronauts: passengers will be bestowed their astronaut wings, and will be able to keep their spacesuits, which will be custom made specifically for them.
Virgin Galactic has already established exclusive commercial partnerships too: for instance, ticket holders will be offered the opportunity to buy a limited edition Land Rover Astronaut Edition, only available to ticket holders.
“I’m pleased to say the first one arrived in Australia last week — keep an eye out for it if you live in Perth,” Mr Attenborough said.
What could the future be like?
According to Mr Attenborough, space travel in the not too distant future could connect global cities and continents in ways never before imaginable.
One of these is the prospect of having “spaceports” — the space equivalent of airports, naturally — in multiple countries and locations around the world.
With this in place, he floated the prospect of travelling between London and Sydney in just two hours, with spaceships capable of taking off from one “spaceport” and landing at another one.
“Our relationship to space is going to change because our access to space is being transformed,” he said.
Business lessons from Virgin Galactic’s experience
At $200,000 a ticket on the first flights, space travel doesn’t come that cheap. But Mr Attenborough said the price tag has made space travel accessible to customers from 60 countries on six continents, and that “Australia is really well represented” among those customers.
But it is the very fact that customers have been part of the journey from very early beginnings that Mr Attenborough said has played a major role in Virgin Galactic’s successes to date.
This has meant that customers have been at the heart of the decision-making and decision process, and have felt — and indeed been — invested in the commercial success of the business.
“For me, I think it’s been one of the greatest business lessons I’ve ever had,” he said.
“Sometimes it is challenging having customers that early in the project, because you know they’re impatient, they have views — we invite them in an attempt to give us those views — but what it has given us is two things.
“Firstly, a much better product. The product that we have defined and now perfected is immeasurably better, because we know who is going to be buying it first.
“The other thing is that when you’re undertaking a challenge like this, you have lots of good days... but you also have some bad days. That’s almost inevitable. And if you bring customers into the tent, the early-adoptive customers, those people are your best ambassadors, your best friends when times are hard.
“So, I’m a great fan of this sort of approach of getting people on board and then telling the story warts and all as it unfolds.”
Words of wisdom from Richard Branson
Mr Attenborough suggested that he has learnt a great deal from working so closely with one of the world’s most famous entrepreneurs, and regaled several snippets of advice he had picked up along the way.
He said that Mr Branson had famously been asked about how to become a millionaire, to which his response has been “become a billionaire and then start an airline”, noting that for a spaceline, the risks have been infinitely greater still.
He also recalled Mr Branson’s response to a media article when he first set out to establish Virgin Atlantic, which suggested that 90 per cent of its readers wouldn’t fly with an airline owned by a record label.
“So, Richard wrote back to them the next week and said, ‘Thank you so much for doing the market research I should have done before I leased my first 747. On the other hand, if 10 per cent of the British public are willing to fly, I better get another one.’”
But perhaps Mr Branson’s greatest advice came in the form of a video recorded as a personal message from himself to his young grandchildren.
“Virgin Galactic has shown that when you set off on challenging and important adventures, exceptional people come forward to join the journey — people who are consistently by your side and on your side, people who share your dreams and people who help make them a reality,” he said, shown in tears as the December test flight successfully reaches space.
Mr Attenborough was speaking as part of a presentation at the CEBIT Conference in Sydney. Images courtesy of Virgin Galactic website.
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.