Richard Branson’s journey to the edge of space this weekend won cheers fromJeff Bezos, Janet Jackson–and Elon Musk. The SpaceX founder congratulated Branson for a “beautiful flight!” from a prime position at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The respect is mutual: on Sunday, Branson revealed to London’s Times his rival is actually a customer: Musk has purchased a ticket on one of Branson’s future spaceflights.
In fact, it turns out Musk was one of Branson’s earliest backers. He bought his ticket on Virgin Galatic all the way back in 2006, according to a former Virgin Galactic executive.
“Elon Musk has a Galactic ticket,” Will Whitehorn—who served as president of Galactic from 2004 to 2010, and is now president of U.K. Space, the industry trade association—told Forbes on Friday. “I know because I sold it to him.”
The deposit—which came four years after Musk founded SpaceX—would have set Musk back about $250,000, if he paid the going rate. Chump change forthe world’s third richest person today, but a decent chunk for the Elon Musk of 2006.
Musk bought his ticket during a period that would make or break SpaceX. The first of its three failed Falcon 1 launches happened in 2006 before success in 2008, and to this day Musk talks of that period as being highly precarious–“the last money that we had,” he said at an event in 2017, reported by CNBC.
Musk’s deposit entitles him to a seat on a Virgin Galactic space plane which currently has capacity for eight people, six passengers and two pilots. Virgin Galactic–which has often pushed back its time frame estimates–has said it wants to start flying paying customers in 2022.
Space For All, Especially The Wealthy
Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004, building on the success of Burt Rutan’s famous reusable spacecraft design that had won the Ansari X-Prize thanks to backing from Microsoft’s late billionaire cofounder Paul Allen.
Even back then Branson and Musk were on the same page. “I actually sat with Elon Musk in the winter of 2004 when we were both in front of Congress getting the commercial space launch amendment act passed,” Whitehorn recalls. “He had a vision which Richard had of basically space being a place profitably [to] save humanity–to put it in the bluntest terms.”
Virgin Galactic doesn’t publicize the names of those who have bought a ticket, or even the price of that ticket, but celebrities like Kate Winslet, Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber are often reported to have also put their names down.
The company’s most recent quarterly report listed customer deposits of $83 million, suggesting that approximately 300 people have signed up for the 90-minute trip, to experience 7 or so minutes of zero-g weightlessness.
But there’s still some way to go before Virgin Galactic is the billion-dollar-a-year space tourism company it aims to be. According to Forbes stock insight contributor Trefis, consensus revenue estimates for 2022 (if flights actually begin) stand at around $50 million, meaning that the stock trades at over 180x its forward revenues. Virgin Galactic reported net losses of $273 million in its 2020 report.
SpaceX, meanwhile, is a very different proposition. Founded in 2002 with the aim to get humans to Mars, Musk and his team have pioneered the reusability of its spacecraft–a major innovation in driving down the price of access to space. SpaceX’s achievements include becoming the first privately funded fully liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit in 2008 and the first private company to send humans to the International Space Station in 2020. Its Starlink so-called “megaconstellation” of satellites aims to provide commercial internet service around the world, while its Starship super heavy-lift launch system will take Musk closer toward interplanetary spaceflight. “The Virgin systems don’t compete with Elon at all,” Whitehorn says. “They’re complementary.”
Musk wished Branson good luck before his flight on Saturday—with a 3 a.m. visit to his kitchen. “Elon’s a friend,” Branson told the Times on Sunday, “and maybe I’ll travel on one of his ships one day.”