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Oligarch of the Month: Richard Branson

The Virgin magnate is battling fellow billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in the race to turn outer space into a playground for the rich.

Don Arnold/Getty

Music-and-travel tycoon Richard Branson didn’t quite make it to space in July, though he came pretty close: From his VSS Unity space capsule, he live-streamed 53.5 miles above the earth and only 8.5 miles short of the Kármán line, where space begins. “To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream looking up to the stars,” an ecstatic Branson intoned, while members of the Unity crew bounced, giddy and weightless, behind him.

Branson had other reasons for joy: With hundreds of reservations already booked, Virgin Galactic’s nascent space tourism business seems poised for takeoff. There are billionaire bragging rights at stake, too, with Elon Musk (SpaceX) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) also sinking a portion of their unthinkably large fortunes into private space travel in the hopes of earning it all back, and then some, from tourism and government contracts. Indeed, Bezos’s own rocket, New Shepard, soared higher than Unity nine days later, sending Virgin Galactic’s share price tumbling.

Branson is genuinely adventuresome—he’s also crossed the Pacific in a hot-air balloon—and has courted publicity for decades, once donning a bridal gown and shaving his beard to promote an ill-fated retail venture, Virgin Brides. “I want Virgin to be the coolest brand on the planet and for that, I’m prepared to dangle in the buff over Times Square, fly over Everest in a balloon, or find myself on a bunjee [sic] 100 feet below a helicopter in a skydiver position, to be landed among 100 buxom and beautiful female lifeguards,” he wrote in his 2006 book, Screw It, Let’s Do It.

Branson now aims to extend Virgin’s coolness beyond terra firma, so it might be understandable that he got a little treacly at the thought of coming so close to his goal. It may have been the altitude, sure. But Branson certainly also realized that he had briefly won an ego contest against two men even richer than him—and that he had many, many more millions on the way.