I believe in taking on insurmountable challenges and going into markets where the public is not being served well and drastically improving it through innovation, disruption and adventure. What better or bigger market is there than space? I take a look back at how we got this far in my new autobiography Finding My Virginity. Here's an exclusive extract:
On 29 September 2004, I stood out on the tarmac in Mojave looking at SpaceShipOne glowing white and red in the blazing sun. I couldn’t stand still. The big test – our shot at winning the XPRIZE – had arrived. A couple of days earlier, I had arrived to officially announce our new business: Virgin Galactic. I said that if SpaceShipOne won the XPRIZE, we would engage Scaled Composites to develop a much larger new mothership and spaceship – WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – with the aim of launching passengers into space. I would be the first passenger. Reservations would open very soon, I announced, with customers putting down a full $200,000 deposit in advance, though this would be fully refundable until Virgin Galactic was ready to fly passengers to space. My announcement caused quite a stir and there was huge interest in what we were attempting. Now all we needed was for the team to win the XPRIZE.
Mike Melvill took the first of the two flights stipulated by the competition rules. As we watched SpaceShipOne drop from the mothership and blast off into the stratosphere, I wondered whether we were more scared watching back on earth than Mike was striving for space. He had plenty of reasons to be terrified; the ride was far from smooth. At 170,000 feet the spaceship went into a series of vertical rolls, spinning a record twenty-nine times up to 300,000 feet. It was out of control, speeding faster than a bullet out of the earth’s atmosphere. How Mike didn’t pass out I’ll never know. But the system worked, the spaceship went up into space at 102.9 kilometres and Mike got back to earth in one piece.
When he climbed out of the cockpit to great relief and applause, I asked him how it felt to see the wonder of space.
‘It felt like a religious experience,’ he told me, seeing the curvature of the earth alone in a tiny ship. He had felt the beginnings of what is known as the overview effect, a shift in awareness whereby astronauts realise just how fragile and precious life back on earth really is. Even Mike’s calm exterior cracked a little at feeling that.
Five days later, it was time for the second flight. After so much spinning on the first test, there were yet more issues to solve in precious little time. Yet the Scaled team remained confident: the spinning, though scary, also showed the strength of the spaceship and how much pressure it could withstand. When it came time for Scaled to decide who would be the pilot this time around, Brian Binnie got the nod.
That morning, I stood in the Control Room feeling nervous as Brian climbed into SpaceShipOne. As calm as Brian had looked, many of us in the control room were the exact opposite. The stakes felt high: this was an-all-or-nothing moment for us. If the XPRIZE was not won, it would be unlikely that Virgin Galactic could get started. As I hoped and wished that Brian would get SpaceShipOne high enough to win the prize, another even more serious concern took over. What if he didn’t make it back at all? But it was too late to think that: for this flight, we were beyond the point of no return.
The spaceship looked stunningly beautiful as it was released to fly solo without a hitch. WhiteKnightTwo bounced up and its pilot Mike Melvill flew the mothership out of the way. After six seconds of free fall, Brian ignited the rocket motor at around 46,000 feet. With unbelievable power, the spaceship reached full thrust within a fraction of a second. It began its rocket-powered ascent as smoothly as one can expect from a test vehicle zooming at supersonic speeds. Within a dozen seconds the sound barrier was passed. After one minute the ship was approaching 5,000 kilometres per hour and the sky began to change colour. From the milky blues of the California sky, the view turned darker, moving through navy past grey into pitch black.
Suddenly, we lost radio contact. Burt still looked relaxed, but I saw his expression darken as the silent seconds ticked on. After what seemed like an eternity, the radio crackled into life and Brian’s voice reverberated around the room – up in the outer atmosphere, everything was fine. The relief was palpable. I exchanged sideways glances with Alex and Will, and Paul and I breathed out almighty sighs in unison. After about eighty seconds the engine shut off, and deep silence made the darkness feel blacker still. Out of Brian’s window, the curvature of the earth shone clear and bright. Gravity disappeared from the cockpit, and he knew he was in space. Before SpaceShipOne deployed its feathering system, it reached its top-level altitude of a record 112.2 kilometres above the earth, smashing the required target. The XPRIZE had been won.
When SpaceShipOne landed in triumph, there was a lot of hugging with the family, a few tears and smiles all round. I had the great honour of shaking the pilots’ hands and congratulating them on a job well done. Somebody told me it was the forty-seventh anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite to orbit the earth. We were truly standing on the shoulders of giants.
I clambered up on top of a pick-up truck with the pilots, Burt, Paul and the team. As we waved to the crowd, high-fived and embraced, a chilling rule in the XPRIZE regulations came to mind. It stated that the pilots had to stay alive for at least twenty-four hours after their flight in order for the result to stand. I noticed that the roof of the pick-up was very slippery indeed, especially as we began jolting around, spraying champagne. As we stood atop this greasy moving vehicle, I couldn’t help but glance at Brian, hoping he wouldn’t fall off and kill himself. I noticed Burt was making the same eyes at Paul and me. Later, he told me: ‘I was
more afraid that one of the billionaires would fall off than the pilot who had to stay alive for us to win $10 million!’
We agreed to contract Scaled Composites to begin work on our new space programme; but we would also build our own team from scratch to ultimately take over Scaled’s work. Then we had to think about taking reservations, navigating our way through all manner of rules and regulations, and working out how all this fitted in with everything else happening in the Virgin world. We didn’t know how it would all work, but I was convinced we would be creating hundreds of jobs, and inspiring millions of dreams. I realised that with the barriers broken, and two commercial astronauts receiving their wings, I was one (small) step closer myself. Suddenly it was very likely that our family, our friends and thousands of others would have the chance to go to space in our lifetimes. Before the XPRIZE came along, I had almost given up hope of ever going. Now I was convinced my spaceman fantasy was not far from becoming reality. But rather than worry about the detail for now, I took another moment to look up at the skies, basking in the wonder of space, closer than ever before.
The most incredible day turned into the most outrageous of nights. It seemed as though everybody in Mojave was crammed into the Mariah Inn’s tiny bar. I was hugging anybody within grabbing distance. I even proposed to the Iranian astronaut Anousheh Ansari on behalf of my son, forgetting she was already married! ‘Come on, you are very beautiful, Sam is very handsome, we are all very happy – let’s cap the night off!’ President George W. Bush called the team from on board Air Force One and congratulated everyone. He was delighted to know the spirit of adventure and entrepreneurship was thriving in America. We resisted the temptation to suggest our aircraft was better than his – let alone our space programme!
Since the first person went into space in 1961, fewer than 500 others have followed, most of them male, white and English-speaking. It was great that those lucky hundreds had made it out of the atmosphere, but I was excited that we could help many more people from different countries, cultures and languages. As the cost per NASA space shuttle launch had grown to approximately $1.5 billion, we knew it was up to the new commercial space industry we were inventing to create the astronauts of the future. In a few glorious, high-octane seconds, SpaceShipOne had ushered in a brave new era of space innovation. For the first time, the sky was no longer the limit. Now, the really hard work began. There was a multi-billion dollar private space industry just waiting for us to kick-start it. Virgin Galactic had lift-off.