Can space travel save the planet?
Virgin CEO Richard Branson has created a spaceship that helps the planet. It's also his exit strategy should climate change wreak environmental havoc.
Thu, Sep 03, 2009 at 12:26 PM
BLAST OFF: Virgin CEO Richard Branson in front of the mothership VMS Eve before his maiden flight. (Photo: Virgin Galactic)
Billionaire Richard Branson -- the maverick founder and CEO of the Virgin empire -- has an exit strategy in case climate change gets the best of planet Earth.
Though Branson has launched more than 200 companies in the span of four decades, it’s his latest scheme -- space travel, and specifically an environmentally sound spaceship -- that will be his escape route in case of environmental catastrophe, he said. “It makes sense for us to try and set up a proper base somewhere else,” Branson said.
But in the meantime, Branson is relentlessly pursuing green entrepreneurship.
Five years after launching Virgin Galactic, the commercial venture that promises to take passengers to space and back for $200,000, Branson is billing the company as beneficial to the environment. Beyond space tourism, Virgin Galactic’s goals include atmospheric sampling, Earth and space observation and micro-financing gravity experimentation. Branson said his equipment -- some 50 years younger than NASA’s -- could propel satellites into space at a fraction of the current carbon output.
“There are lots of possibilities worth exploring once space travel becomes the norm rather than the expensive exception,” he added. “Capturing solar would be one, putting mirrors in space to reflect some of the sun’s rays and slow down the heating process might be another.”
The spaceships themselves also feature hybrid rocket power and are fuel-efficient. The first ship, funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and built by Burt Rutan, flew to space three times in 2004. A newer model can hold two pilots and up to six passengers. To date, the company has accepted 300 reservations from would-be space travelers.
The green mindset pervades Branson’s other businesses, too. Early in 2008, Virgin Atlantic became the first commercial airliner to conduct a test flight using biofuels. Today, the company is testing a carbon-neutral fuel, which Branson said he hopes most Virgin Atlantic flights will use within five years.
“We’ve got the youngest fleet and we’ve pushed Airbus and Boeing into making carbon composite planes,” he said. “We offer a carbon offset for people who book on our flights, but I think the most important thing is investing in clean fuels.”
Outside air travel, Branson’s Virgin Green Fund invests in clean technology. In 2007, he chaired the Virgin Earth Challenge, which offered $25 million to the person who came up with the best new green initiative.
Known for his adventurous style and stunts -- on multiple occasions, he’s tried to set world records in sailing or balloon travel -- Branson has his hands in other humanitarian causes, as well. In 2007, along with Nelson Mandela and Peter Gabriel, he formed The Elders, a group dedicated to solving global conflicts.
But among green investors, Branson may be best known for his Carbon War Room, which sniffs out profitable opportunities for entrepreneurs “outside the carbon economy.”
“If there’s a way that businesses can benefit from tackling carbon that’s obviously a win-win,” he said.
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