Richard Branson sits on the top-ten list of the United Kingdom's richest citizens, with an estimated wealth of roughly eight billion dollars. As the company he founded -- Virgin Group -- tries to expand its airline operations into the United States, Branson is committing billions of dollars of the company's future profits to developing renewable energy. VOA's Kane Farabaugh recently spoke to the British entrepreneur at the United Nations in New York about his commitments to helping the environment, and about his plans for the final frontier in tourism -- space.
He set a record for crossing both the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel.
An attempt to travel non-stop around the world in a hot air balloon fell short of his dreams in 1999, but his Virgin Global Flyer aircraft, piloted by Steve Fossett, succeeded in 2005.
Richard Branson said before the success, “It is perhaps the last great aviation record left here on Earth."
But when Richard Branson is not flying above the clouds, he is right down to earth in the effort to go green. "There is a danger that mankind could actually be destroyed if we carry on putting too much methane and carbon into the Earth's atmosphere."
At former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference in New York in September, Branson emphasized the need to develop renewable energy. "We have to wean ourselves off our dependence on coal and fossil fuels."
Branson committed the profits over the next 10 years from Virgin Atlantic Airline and other transportation companies in the Virgin Group to the effort. That is an estimated cost of three billion dollars.
And in February, Branson announced the Virgin Earth Challenge, a $25 million prize for the person who develops a working solution to remove greenhouse gases from the Earth's atmosphere. "To devise a way of removing greenhouse gases, at least the equivalent of one billion tons of carbon per year -- hopefully much more, and you will have the satisfaction of saving thousands of species and possibly even mankind itself."
Since the announcement, Branson has received a flood of entries for the competition that is open to the world. "We've had 15,000 people who have sent in their application forms. It only launched a month ago so it's early days to see if anybody's come up with any great ideas, but at least we're getting people thinking. And you know, it would be wonderful if someone had a breakthrough."
Aside from his efforts to promote a cleaner environment, Branson continues to be a man on the move, expanding his business empire.
Almost 35 years after he started his fledgling record company in London, the Virgin name is on everything from music to mobile phones, comics to drinks, trains to planes, and now, the first spacecraft built for tourists.
Called Virgin Galactic, it is scheduled to blast off in 2009. Branson adds, "Myself and my family are fortunate enough, because we own a space company, to be able to take the first flight up there. So 24 months from now my parents and my children and myself shall be popping into space.”
Branson says he is not concerned. “I'm not nervous. I mean, these spaceships will be well tested before we go up. But it's a responsibility. It's a responsibility to take my children up and my parents, and it's going to be a responsibility taking hopefully thousands of people up in the years to come."
Branson is sometimes called the "Rebel Billionaire", a title he has earned partly for the risks he has taken in many of his business ventures.
While the world waits for Virgin Galactic to launch from the Mojave desert in California, Branson is also trying to position Virgin into the U.S. domestic air travel market. Virgin America, based in San Francisco, is trying to win approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT initially opposed the start-up because of regulations preventing foreign citizens from controlling a U.S.-based airline.
In Britain in 2003, Branson also led an unsuccessful effort to keep the supersonic passenger jet Concorde flying. The owner, British Airways, refused to sell the aircraft and forced the fleet into retirement. That put an end to supersonic passenger travel.
But when Richard Branson looks back on a life less ordinary than most, it is not his airlines, his record stores, his space franchise, or his travel speed records he wants people to remember most. He hopes the world will remember the Virgin Earth Challenge. "If somebody could answer this prize, I would be very happy to be known for coming up with a prize that saved the world."