Saudi Prince Bets Big On Branson's Virgin Group To Transform Economy

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Virgin Group Ltd., a British multinational venture capital conglomerate established by Sir Richard Branson, had a very productive first week in April – from Virgin Hyperloop One’s full-scale test of futuristic travel pods to Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered test flight into the upper limits of the stratosphere.

The purpose behind Branson’s scramble to conduct the grandest show in just a few days, with innovative and emerging technologies, is due to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MbS) inspection of the company’s research and test facilities in the Mojave Desert, early last week.

Unbeknownst to many, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund made financial arrangements in the fourth quarter of 2017 to invest more than $1 billion in Virgin Group’s space companies, which would allow the kingdom to diversify away from its oil-dependent economy.

Nevertheless, the country’s Public Investment Fund is still waiting for the regulatory approval from the United States Government.

On Tuesday, we reported how Branson and his Hyperloop One team showed MbS a full-scale test of the Hyperloop, a new revolutionary form of transportation to move passengers and/or freight in travel pods through vacuum-sealed tubes at extraordinarily high speeds.

While the Saudi sovereign wealth fund is preparing to inject Virgin Group Ltd.’s space companies with a billion dollars, Virgin Hyperloop One executives pitched MbS on installing the Hyperloop throughout the kingdom to dramatically reduce travel time. Executives told MbS, the new rapid form of transportation would stimulate economic growth and lead to further diversification of Saudi industries.

As MbS prepares for Vision 2030, which primarily ushers in a complete transformation of the country’s economy; Virgin Galactic could enable a space-centric entertainment industry to flourish in the Kingdom. This could be a gamechanger for the oil-dependent economy, as human spaceflight and the launching of commercial satellites would be the dominant industry.

After the Virgin Hyperloop One demonstration, MBS traveled to Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Air and Space Port in California as part of his tour.

Saudi Press Agency said the MbS was briefed on the development of Virgin’s Galactic spacecraft before its first commercial spacecraft service.

Virgin executives and MbS reviewed the pending investment partnership and the possibility for new space services in Saudi Arabia, including commercial spaceflight, research/manufacturing, and technology training for Saudi youths.

On Thursday, while MbS wound down his U.S. tour, Virgin Galactic completed its first rocket-powered test flight in nearly four years — providing MbS a taste for outer space. CNBC said Branson’s space company launched its Unity spacecraft by rocket-power, reaching supersonic speeds in the upper atmosphere before safely landing at the company’s test flight facility in Mojave, California.

Video: VSS Unity First Powered Flight

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CNBC provides knowledge that the Virgin Galactic Unity rocket-powered spacecraft test went off without a hitch.

Unity took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port, lifted by the jet-powered mothership Eve. The carrier aircraft lifted Unity to an altitude of 46,500 feet above the desert. Eve released Unity from under its wing and, with a two-member crew of Mark Stucky and Dave Mackay, Unity’s rocket motor roared to life. The rocket screamed into a steep climb as the engine burned for 30 seconds, pushing Unity past the speed of sound to Mach 1.87.

The Unity craft the turned and glided back to land at Mojave, with Eve touching down soon after. It was the fifth powered test flight of the SpaceShipTwo design, and the first since the fatal crash of Spaceship Enterprise on Oct. 31, 2014.

The spacecraft underwent extensive engine testing and seven glide tests before Virgin Galactic said it was ready for a powered test flight — a crucial milestone before the company begins sending tourists to the edge of the atmosphere.

The original SpaceShipTwo craft was built by experimental aircraft developer Scaled Composites. In 2016, Virgin Galactic unveiled the version of the SpaceShipTwo design on which Unity is based, built by The Spaceship Company. A subsidiary of Virgin Group, The Spaceship Company made alterations to the design, intending to avoid a repeat of the 2014 accident. The company is also building two more spaceships, intended to become part of the Virgin fleet for taking people to the edge of space.

“We are now just months away from Virgin Galactic sending people into space and Virgin Orbit placing satellites around the Earth,” Branson said.

CNBC indicates that future passengers on Branson’s spacecraft could fork over upwards of $250,000 per flight. This is money to Saudi Arabia’s ears, as the country attempts to expand into new industries before its oil-linked economy collapses.

The one question we ask: How come Saudi Arabia did not pick Elon Musk and his band of overhyped companies for this critical transformation of the kingdom?