Billionaires and their toys, Part 1: Richard Branson travels to space

The Virgin Galactic founder flew on the first private flight to space

Today's expression: On the way
Explore more: Lesson #386
August 2, 2021:

On July 11, Richard Branson traveled aboard his own Virgin Galactic rocket ship on the first private flight to space. He beat out his billionaire rivals: Jeff Bezos of Blue Origin and Elon Musk of SpaceX by just a few days. Branson hopes this is the start of commercial space travel becoming more of a reality. Plus, learn “on the way.”

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Billionaires and their toys, Part 1: Richard Branson goes to space

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff. JR is here as well. He’s the producer and this is Plain English lesson number 386 on Monday, August 2, 2021. This full lesson, including the transcript and translations into seven languages, is available at PlainEnglish.com/386.

Coming up today… when the British entrepreneur and celebrity Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, his vision of private space travel seemed far out of reach. But Branson himself took a ride in his own spacecraft, went to the edge of space, and declared Virgin Galactic open for business when he landed. For $250,000, a seat on an upcoming flight to space could be yours.

In the second half of today’s lesson, we’ll talk about the English expression “on the way.” I bet most of you know what it means, but this is such an important and versatile expression that I wanted to highlight it for you. All that, and a quote of the week, on today’s lesson.

By the way, if 13,158 of you sign up for Plain English Plus+ by the end of the month, I’ll make a reservation for a future Virgin Galactic space flight and tell you all about it.

Virgin Galactic founder goes to space

Just about a year ago, in Lesson 273 , we talked about the era of private space flight . SpaceX, the space company created by Tesla founder Elon Musk, had just launched an astronaut into space. At the time , it was the first private company to send someone into space. Before that flight, the only way astronauts got to space was on government-sponsored missions.

The private space industry took two giant steps forward again this month when first, Richard Branson and then nine days later, Jeff Bezos both flew on their respective company-owned rockets to the edge of space. They were each unique in their own way.

Let’s first look at Branson, the founder of a collection of companies under the label Virgin. He started with Virgin Records, a music store, and expanded into railways, radio stations, travel, and hotels. In 2004, Branson founded Virgin Galactic, a company to make private space travel a reality. He said he was inspired by the Apollo moon landing in 1969. At the time, it seemed impossibly futuristic and it became Branson’s life-long aspiration.

And now, the future appears to have arrived. After investing a billion dollars and seventeen years in the venture, Branson has finally realized his dream. The 70-year-old entrepreneur went to space on his own aircraft. Virgin Galactic had done test runs previously, but this was the first time that the company took multiple passengers into space. Branson, himself, was aboard.

His ship is comprised of two parts: a winged plane called SpaceShipTwo and a mothership called WhiteKnightTwo. They took off from a launching pad in the American state of New Mexico at 8:30 in the morning. The two parts rocketed 50,000 feet in the air attached together. That’s about twice as high as commercial airplanes fly. Then, after about 45 minutes, they decoupled or separated and the SpaceShipTwo’s engine engaged, propelling the smaller part much farther into the sky than the one it had previously been attached to.

The six people aboard—Branson, three Virgin Galactic employees, and two pilots—then climbed 53.5 miles above the earth. On the way, they accelerated at three times the speed of sound. Outside their window, the light of the Earth’s atmosphere turned to the darkness of space.

When they reached a suborbital level, the ship paused and held its position floating above Earth. The crew unfastened themselves from their seats and enjoyed a few minutes of weightlessness. They then buckled back in and the wings curled up as the plane made its way down through the Earth’s atmosphere and landed on a runway.

Branson’s flight was one of the last test flights before commercial service starts as Virgin Galactic has already received permission from America’s Federal Aviation Administration to take commercial passengers into space. The ship they’ll use holds two pilots and six passengers. The company already has 600 reservations for private space flights with prices ranging from $200,000 to $250,000. They believe that there’s a market of about 2 million people per year who would pay that amount of money for a ride to space. The employees aboard Branson’s flight were working on improvements to the cabin and finalizing passenger instructions and orientation materials. Three more test flights are planned.

Branson wasn’t supposed to go to space on July 11. He was scheduled to go on one of the last test flights before commercial service began. But, when Jeff Bezos announced he was going to space on July 20, the anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, Branson changed his schedule to beat his rival Bezos into space. Out of the three billionaire space entrepreneurs—Branson, Bezos, and Musk—Sir Richard Branson was the first to ride his own ship to space.

Once he landed, Branson announced that he would be creating a sweepstakes, allowing a lucky person to win two tickets on one of the first commercial Virgin Galactic space flights happening next year.

An elaborate show

Of course, this was Richard Branson, so the whole thing was elaborately staged with a huge party, a live stream of the action, and a choreographed video introduction. The video showed Branson riding his bicycle along a closed highway in New Mexico and escorted by two SUVs. Because that, apparently, is how you ride a bicycle if you’re Richard Branson. Anyway, the video clearly showed him on his bike, arriving at Spaceport America, where the spacecraft would take off. The strong implication was that Branson rode his bike to the spaceport, got on a spaceship, and went to space.

That is not what happened. The passengers had to be there before dawn and Branson didn’t ride his bike to the launch. He arrived, quite conventionally, in a car. The bike ride was from a different day.

I saw a funny article describing this little fiasco. Most of the article is “not safe for work ,” so I won’t link to it, but the article pointed out how strange it is that in a video showing a 70-year-old man riding a bicycle to his spaceship and flying to space, the part about the bicycle was fake and the part about the space flight was real!

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Expression: On the way