Is Space Tourism Finally About To Take Off?

Jun 6, 2014
Originally published on April 20, 2015 11:01 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Getting There.

About Richard Branson's TEDTalk

Entrepreneur Richard Branson shares his vision for private, commercial space travel.

About Richard Branson

Richard Branson's megabrand, Virgin, is home to more than 250 companies, from gyms, gambling houses and bridal boutiques, to fleets of planes, trains and limousines.

Now he's moving upward into space tourism: Virgin Galactic has successfully test-launched a spacecraft that can carry six passengers into space, for a zero-gravity pleasure-cruise at $250,000 a ticket. So far, the company says 700 people have signed up. Branson hopes the first passengers will take off sometime this year.

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So innovations often come out of really irritating experiences, you know, like not being able to get to where you need to go quickly or efficiently. And one afternoon in 1977, that happened to Richard Branson in Puerto Rico.

RICHARD BRANSON: I was 27 years old. I had a beautiful lady waiting for me in the Virgin Islands. And the airline that I was flying on decided they didn't have enough passengers. So they decided to delay the flight 'til the next morn. And I was upset, desperate to get to this lady.

And I went to the back of the airport. I rented a plane. I got a blackboard, just for a joke, wrote Virgin Airline's since I was going to the Virgin islands. Went out to all the passengers who'd been bumped and filled my first plane. And we ended up, you know, getting to the BBI that night. And it got me thinking. Next day I rang up Boeing and said have you got any second-hand 747s for sale?


CHRIS ANDERSON: You know, you made this move that other people advice you was crazy. And in fact...

RAZ: This is TED curator Chris Anderson in conversation with Richard on the TED stage.


ANDERSON: I had a conversation with one of the investment bankers who, at the time, when you - you basically sold your Virgin Records and invested heavy in Virgin Atlantic. And his view was that you were trading, you know, the world's fourth-biggest record company for the 25th biggest airline, and that you were out of your mind. Why did you do that?

BRANSON: Well, I think that, you know, there's a very thin dividing line between success and failure. And I think if you start a business without financial backing, you're likely - you're likely to go the wrong side of that dividing line. And I'm - I just love learning, and I'm incredibly inquisitive. And I love taking on the - you know, the status quo and trying to turn it upside down.

So I've seen life as one long learning process. And if I see, you know - you know, if I fly on somebody else's airline and find the experience is not a pleasant one, which it wasn't 21 years ago, then I think, well, you know, maybe I can create the kind of airline that I'd like to fly on.

RAZ: The kind of airline that had personal video players and libraries and a standing bar 20 years before any other airline did the same thing. But aside from those things, the thing about flying is that it's not that different than it was 60 years ago. So Richard Branson plans to change that. And just like for Bertran Piccard, the seed was planted on a particular July day in 1969.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.

BRANSON: It was watching the moon landing on a little black-and-white television set - and with my sisters and parents. And that was the most inspirational moment of, you know, of those years.

RAZ: Did you think at that moment that we'll all someday go there. I'll go there. We'll be up there.

BRANSON: Oh, I absolutely felt that. And I think, you know, millions of people all over the world assumed that one day we would be able to go to the moon.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's beautiful from here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: It has a stark beauty all its own. It's like much of a (unintelligible) of the United States.

BRANSON: And that was inspirational. And, you know, many, many, many years later, you know, only 300 or 400 people had actually been into space. And it was obvious that governments weren't that interested in letting us experience the wonders of space. And then we decided, you know, let's get out there and try to find an engineer or somewhere in the world who can - who could build us a spaceship.

RAZ: So that's exactly what Richard Branson did.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Release, release, release.

RAZ: What you're hearing right now is actual audio from one of the first-ever test flights of SpaceShipTwo. It's a new kind of spacecraft that was built by Virgin Galactic, which is Richard's commercial spaceflight company. And it works like this.

There's a giant rocket ship that blasts you and five other passengers to an altitude of 60,000 feet, at which point the smaller capsule that you're inside...


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: 3, 2, 1...

RAZ: ...Detaches.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Release, release, release.

RAZ: And then there's another rocket blast. And then you're pressed back into your seat at 3,000 miles per hour, and you're taken thousands of feet higher into space.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Bringing it down.

BRANSON: When the rocket stops, you will be in space. There will be complete silence. You will unbuckle, and you will float around as gently, lift up and hit the roof. And you'll be able to turn somersaults, and you'll be able to look out of big windows that we've built back at our beautiful Earth. And you'll be 1 of only 500 people who've been to space. And you will have had, I think, the ride of a lifetime.

RAZ: Richard Branson has already sold over 700 tickets for these future flights, each one costing $250,000. And once those 700 people go up, that'll be more than all the people who've ever been to space, period. How is this going to change how we travel around the world in the future?

BRANSON: Well, it'll take us a while. But the 300 engineers that are working on this project are already drawing up designs for transcontinental airplanes. I mean, on purpose we built our spaceship shaped as an airplane rather than shaped as a rocket, which is the conventional way. And in that way, we can build them bigger and bigger.

And one day we hope to be able to transport you orbitally, i.e. at 18,000 miles an hour from, say, New York to Australia. The maximum amount of time that people should actually spend traveling is, you know, roughly 40 minutes...

RAZ: Wow.

BRANSON: ...Because at 18,000 miles an hour, you can get to pretty where - anywhere on earth in about 40 minutes. But equally, I think that through space travel, we may well be able to reduce the carbon footprint to a negligible carbon footprint in traveling people around the world by, you know, getting them out of the Earth's atmosphere and orbitally around the world - anyway, all Virgin flights. We'll see whether the others catches up.

RAZ: So we're - I mean, so this is really, probably going to be the next big innovation in flight, right? Like, now we've got - I've seen jet travel, and the Concorde was around for a while. But it's more or less the same amount of time to get from New York to Tokyo. But the big change is going to be when you've got aircraft that will launch into space and then come back down.

BRANSON: Yes. I mean, that's going to be the radical change. And then it's up to our engineers and technicians to overcome the technological challenge, then to make sure that it is environmentally safe.

You know, maybe the most iconic pitch ever, which has done more, I think, for the environmental movement than almost any other picture, was the picture shot from the moon back of the earth. And I think that picture stimulated so many of us to want to, you know, protect our oceans, to protect the species in our oceans, to protect forests, to protect the species in our forests.

And if we can actually get thousands of people to have that experience, I think that would be enormously beneficial to the world. That's what sort of science fiction's made of. You'll be able to just sit back and look out of your window at the earth as you're traveling around it. And it's going to be absolutely breathtaking.

RAZ: That's Richard Branson. In late May, Virgin Galactic was cleared for takeoff by the FAA. Richard plans to be on that first flight to space with both of his kids later this year. He's a pretty fascinating guy. So you should check out his full interview on the TED stage with Chris Anderson at


BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Round, round get around, I get around. Yeah. Get around, I get around. I get around. Get around, round, round...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show, "Getting There." If you missed any of it or you want to hear more or you want to find out more about who was on it, check out You can also find many more TED Talks at And you can download this program through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz. You've been listening to Ideas Worth Spreading on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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