Just the name Branson makes it seem possible

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 October, 2004, 12:00am

It seems the unpredictable Richard Branson is about to outdo himself. The founder of the Virgin brand has just announced that he will launch space tourism flights within three years, with deposits being taken from January. If anyone can pull it off - and make money in the process - he is the one to do it.

To those who have watched his ascent as a businessman with an empire spanning music, travel, film, financial services and mobile telephony, the announcement should come as only a small surprise. And to those who have marvelled at his ability to find profitable niches in markets others have passed over or feared to enter, the move should provide further inspiration.

His track record as an entrepreneur shows us all that an inspired goal, no matter how outrageous it might sound to others, can be achieved by someone who sees things clearly.

It is not as if Sir Richard has not done the numbers. The initial investment will be US$100 million. He and his partners expect 3,000 seats to be snapped up at the beginning, perhaps even before the first liftoff. At GBP115,000 (HK$1.61 million) per passenger and even assuming further development costs, Virgin Galactic may not have to wait long for the payoff.

Talk of space hotels and air taxis has already been spurred. Affordable mass space travel may not be as close as optimists predict, but it could be achieved within the next generation or two.

Could the man who launched no-frills transatlantic air travel become the father of space tourism? Not bad for a middling student whom many expected would not amount to much.

Not everything the Virgin boss ventures into is a roaring success from the start. His latest business launch, the tilting high-speed trains from London to Glasgow, is a case in point.

He is a risk-taker and this may be his biggest gamble yet.

But at least he has signed up as his business partner the designer of SpaceShipOne. This week, Burt Rutan's vessel is likely to win the X Prize for the first reusable civilian aircraft to be launched into space.

There were others vying for the X Prize and Virgin could be only the first of several commercial space-travel companies to be announced in the next several years, but there may not be a lot of others who think they can make it in the passenger business. Look for orbiting medical research laboratories and low-cost satellite-launch services to begin with.

Detractors call it the ultimate in vanity travel. At about the cost of a luxury car for a few hours' travel, it will not be for everyone. At least not immediately. Getting approval from regulators for what is essentially experimental technology is another thing.

That, perhaps, is the marvel of Sir Richard, a man who sees the possibilities, not the obstacles.