"I hope in five years a reusable rocket will have been developed which can take up to 10 people at a time to stay at the Virgin Hotel for two weeks," Richard Branson proudly announced back in 1999.
We're still waiting on Branson's Virgin Galactic to take tourists into space, despite the promises of the past two decades that he would do just that. But Branson has a new idea for the meantime: Why not launch small satellites into space?
Called Virgin Orbit, Branson's newest space venture will be led by former Boeing executive Dan Hart. "By offering low cost and frequent service to space, the team is revolutionising the small satellite market within the promising space economy," Branson bragged on his blog.
Branson's space strategy, however, is a little odd, so we've come up with a name for it: The Reverse Musk™. How do you pull off a Reverse Musk™? You start with the really hard stuff and then give up and try the more humble projects you should have been working on two decades ago.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 with bold dreams of eventually propelling humans into space — to Mars and beyond. But Musk realised that you had to start with the more modest stuff. Over the next decade, SpaceX built rockets and sent capsules to the International Space Station, and launched satellites.
And all of those things paid off. Musk now talks about how he wants to send space tourists around the moon by the end of 2018. And even though it's a tremendously ambitious goal, some people believe he can do it. Why? Musk started with the "smaller" stuff like launching satellites. Getting humans to the moon and Mars may have been the ultimate goal, but Musk clearly knew that you had to learn to walk before you could run.
Branson has always been about the opposite. Yes, he's been developing his own rockets, and spaceships — one that tragically and infamously exploded in 2014, killing a pilot. But he only recently pursued private contracts to do the more modest stuff, like launching satellites into space, that ultimately teaches lessons that you can use for manned space travel.
Branson did, however, get the state of New Mexico to pay $US250 ($330) million for a spaceship graveyard. So it's not like he wasn't busy spending other people's money. Just not in a way that benefited very many people.
"It has been my longheld dream to open access to space to change the world for good," Branson said in a statement about his new company. "We have been striving to do that by manufacturing vehicles of the future, enabling the small satellite revolution, and preparing commercial space flight for many more humans to reach space and see our home planet."
"I'm thrilled that our small satellite launch service has now progressed to the point it merits the formation of its own company, Virgin Orbit, and a new president in Dan with decades of deep experience and success in a broad variety of space programs."
Will Virgin Orbit be successful? Hopefully. But it's really something he should have started with back in the 2000s.
"Virgin Galactic officials said 100 people already have paid $US200,000 ($264,310) apiece to fly into space," a story from the Associated Press in 2005 promised. "They include actress Victoria Principal, who told the news conference she looked forward to being on the first civilian flight of Virgin Galactic, perhaps as soon as 2008."
Like we said, we're still rooting for Branson's The Reverse Musk™, even if he has almost 20 years of failed promises in his wake. Hopefully this one takes off. Do you get it? I said, I hope this one takes off. Like the spaceships. They take off.