In February 2016, I looked around our group at an inn in Mojave, California, and saw four generations of my family at the table. Mum had flown out to the desert, along with my wife Joan, my son Sam, his wife Bellie and their first child, Eva-Deia. The mood was celebratory — it was my granddaughter’s first birthday. But we were also in Mojave for another special occasion: the unveiling of Virgin Galactic’s new spaceship, which we will use for commercial spaceflights.
As we drove to the hangar where Galactic’s beautiful new SpaceShipTwo was waiting behind the scenes, I was eager for a sneak peek. As I popped my head into the ship, I was greeted with my first surprise on a day of surprises: the actor Harrison Ford! Dave Mackay, Galactic’s chief pilot, was alongside him in the cockpit and only too happy to let Han Solo take the driver’s seat.
“How does it compare to the Millennium Falcon?” I asked.
“It’s real life, it’s fantastic,” Harrison said.
We shook hands and I thanked him for coming. “Well, you’re welcome back here any time, and we’ll get you to space one day.”
Once everyone was inside the hangar, we ramped up the tension with a series of testimonials from Virgin Galactic’s leaders, stressing the amazing teamwork that had gone into this journey. The name for this new SpaceShipTwo model had evolved from our initial nickname, “Hope,” into Virgin SpaceShip Unity. There was no other word to illustrate the togetherness that had defined the long months since the tragic accident of October 31, 2014, in which an earlier iteration of SpaceShipTwo had crashed during a test flight in Mojave, killing a pilot.
While I was itching to show off the spaceship, we had one more surprise: One of the most influential people in history and the only person with a free Virgin Galactic ticket to space, professor Stephen Hawking, who spoke at the event via a pre-recorded video. The hangar went pitch-black and silent.
The iconic sound of Hawking’s computerised voice filled the dark room: “I have had ALS for over 50 years now and while I have no fear of adventure, others do not always take the same view. If I am able to go — and if Richard will still take me — I would be very proud to fly on this spaceship.”
Hawking’s piercing blue eyes beamed from a screen. It was an incredibly powerful moment.
“Space exploration has already been a great unifier — we seem able to cooperate between nations in space in a way we can only envy on Earth,” Hawking continued. “We are entering a new space age and I hope this will help to create a new unity.”
The curtain dropped, and I arrived with VSS Unity to a stream of applause.
I wasn’t going to let the occasion pass without marking Eva-Deia’s big day in unique fashion, though. First, we smashed a baby bottle against the spaceship, the milk promptly splashing all over my face. Next, I cajoled Sarah Brightman, one of our future Galactic astronauts, into kindly singing a touching happy birthday to my granddaughter.
Then one of the most moving moments of the event took place, as Bellie shared some more of Hawking’s wisdom on unity: “When we see the Earth from space, we see ourselves as a whole. We see the unity, but not the divisions. One planet, one human race. We are here together and we need to live together with tolerance and respect.”
Looking at the spaceship and then back to the people who had built it, I felt so proud of every single one of them, not only for their passion and commitment in a pioneering endeavour but also for their teamwork. I jotted down something a member of the Galactic team had said, thinking that it summed up the atmosphere perfectly: “We think of the vehicles as almost our children, which makes us a family, and we are all so proud to see what they grow into.”
The word “family” gets used too often by companies who treat their staff as anything but. I wish more businesses really did run like families. When things are going well, everyone has an even better time celebrating together. When things are tough, you can rally around and help each other get through it. That’s the way we work at Virgin Galactic.
The new SpaceShipTwo — Galactic’s very own suborbital space plane — is the first vehicle to be manufactured by The Spaceship Co, Galactic’s manufacturing arm, and only the second vehicle of its design ever constructed. It has been a long road. The team started building the second SpaceShipTwo back in 2012, with each component part undergoing rigorous testing before assembly, and then further verification and testing.
In December, I went back to Mojave to see VSS Unity’s fifth flight — the first time the spaceship would fly on its own. First, Unity flew for about an hour with the assistance of its carrier plane, Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo. We mingled with the team and their families, looking up in wonder. Then the Unity detached and flew solo, gliding serenely to the ground.
The success of the flight paved the way for more exciting tests in the following months. In February 2017 I was back, watching Unity alongside Sam and Brian Cox, a physicist and popular TV star in the UK.
“People ask me, would you fly to space?” Brian told me, as we looked at Unity.
“Well, would you?” I asked.
“The moment I walked in this hangar and saw that spaceship, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now yes — 100 percent. In that!”
As we watched a pitch-perfect test, Brian became the latest person to become convinced he should join us when commercial flights begin. Hopefully that moment will come very, very soon.
When you’re engaged in any new venture, particularly one as ambitious and difficult as commercial spaceflight, setbacks are inevitable. It’s important to take these setbacks seriously, to learn from them and use them to improve your product. But don’t let turbulence throw you off course. Keep at it — and eventually you’ll reach the stars.
(This essay is adapted from Richard Branson’s latest book, “Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography.”)
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© 2017 Richard Branson (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)