Billionaire Richard Branson has poured a lot of money into getting his Virgin Galactic spaceflight company off the ground and turn space tourism into a real, working industry. But when Branson talks about space tourism, he means much more than a system that simply ferries people into orbit and back. He’s talking about all of tourism — and that includes a bona fide hotel floating around high above the earth.
“One day we will have a Virgin hotel in space,” Branson casually remarked during an interview with The Washington Post on Friday. Although the British business mogul certainly has a healthy sense of humor, he was quite serious about achieving such an ambition.
This is far from the first time Branson has talked about building a hotel in space. In 2014, Branson briefly outlined a broader vision of space that included trips to Mars and a colony on the red planet, and asteroid mining.
Branson is far from the only one discussing the potential to build habitats for space tourists. Bigelow Aerospace and United Launch Alliance are currently working on a joint project to build and launch commercial space pods which could dock to the International Space Station or other future space structures — which could pave the way for more astronauts and scientists to travel to space and conduct short studies and research projects.
But it’s been a while since Branson has resurfaced with talk about hotels in a great vacuum beyond the planet’s atmosphere. Virgin Galactic has made fast strides since a fatal October 2014 spaceplane crash stalled much of its work. The company will conduct its first test flight later this year.
Branson is optimistic 2018 is the year the company finally sends people into space — though he cautioned on Friday that “I’ve made the mistake of giving dates before and being wrong.
“Space is tough,” he said. “All of us that are in it have found it tougher than we thought.”
And in that respect, Branson sees himself as part of a private spaceflight triumvirate in the U.S., along with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Blue Origin CEO (and Washington Post owner) Jeff Bezos. “You’ve got three people who are really putting a lot of time and energy into it,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll create some magic.”
Who will the first lucky individuals be? Branson mentioned the company has nearly 800 “Virgin Galactic astronauts” who have put down $250,000 each for a set on a future trip to space — and that includes physics luminary Stephen Hawking. Branson hopes as things move forward and the launch and trip operations become more streamlined, costs can be reduced, and the flights can be made more energy efficient and greener.
In fact, Branson is in Washington, D.C. this weekend to take part in the People’s Climate March to raise awareness about climate change and persuade the government to enforce bigger restrictions on carbon emissions and encourage more clean energy development. “Even if you are a skeptic,” said Branson, “it makes sense for America and the rest of the world to power the world with clean energy” as a way to create jobs and facilitate a cheap, stable system for delivering power to homes and businesses.
“Generally speaking, the earth is a pretty good place to be,” said Branson. “I don’t believe we all need to go live on the moon, or Mars … But I do think space can play, and has already played, a positive role here on Earth,” such as profoundly augmenting telecommunications systems and applications as a result of satellite infrastructure.
And few places are better at illustrating what clean energy can do than space habitats like the ISS. A future Virgin hotel will almost certainly be a solar power behemoth.
Photos via Getty Images / Rob Kim