On watching Apollo 11
Last December I was in the Mojave Desert watching the launch of Virgin Galactic’s first flight into space. Hundreds of heads raised, hundreds of eyes focused; silent thoughts willing the tiny, streaking orange dot to move faster, higher. And then those long-awaited words: ‘364,000 feet. Virgin Spaceship Unity, welcome to space!’ The crowd erupted with joy and relief. Overwhelmed by tears, I bowed towards the ground, my head in my hands.
At times like those the brain works overtime, delving into the archives, bringing long-past but connected memories into sharp focus. It took me back to Surrey. To 20 July 1969. Mum, Dad, my sisters Vanessa and Lindy and me – all of us in pyjamas and dressing gowns, craning towards the television set, mesmerised by humanity’s greatest achievement, incredulous that it was playing out in our living room. ‘You will all go to space,’ my dad said, turning to us as Neil and Buzz shared their new world with ours. ‘And you’ll think as little about it as getting on a train to London.’
On the future of the space race
Two days earlier, it was my 19th birthday. My mum, knowing there would be one hell of a birthday celebration that Friday night, had phoned me during the day. ‘Don’t go too mad Ricky,’ she warned. ‘We are all terribly excited about the moon mission. They’re saying the landing will be broadcast live on TV and I want us to watch it together at home.’ I gave her my word – then headed for the pub.
That year marked a turning point: after getting just about everything wrong throughout my rather hopeless school years, I was starting to understand my strengths and get a few things right. Virgin was still a year away, but my first business, Student magazine, and the anonymous helpline I’d started, the Student Advisory Centre, were both doing well, and for the first time I felt a sense of purpose and direction.
We were more of a commune than a company; a like-minded bunch of hard-working, hard-playing hippies, living, loving and partying together while trying to change the world. I hadn’t paid much attention in the run-up to the Apollo 11 mission and, maybe for that reason, what our family saw on our black-and-white 10-inch television in the walnut case, just blew me away.
As the years passed, my desire to see our beautiful planet from the black sky of space didn’t go away, but it appeared my dad’s optimism may have been misplaced. So, on the eve of a new millennium, I registered Virgin Galactic with Companies House. With hindsight, that was definitely the easy bit, but as we have travelled the long and challenging road it has become ever clearer that opening space is important and will not be achieved by governments alone. Along with Jeff Bezos at Blue Origin and Elon Musk at SpaceX, we are creating a new space infrastructure, which I hope will herald the dawn of a new space age, building on the Apollo legacy.
On his space legacy
We expect to be taking Virgin Galactic’s first passengers on a suborbital flight next year – and I can’t wait to enjoy the ride myself. As I travelled home last December after the excitement of our first space flight, I started to scribble a letter to my young grandchildren, explaining what we had achieved and what I thought it would mean for them.
I smiled as I remembered my dad’s excitement almost 50 years before, and wrote: ‘You will all fly to space and you’ll think as little about it as getting on a train to London.’ I paused, and then added: ‘And for the sake of your grandad, please make sure you always fly Virgin.’