He started out with a record company in 1970. Now Richard Branson is launching rockets into space

Photo-illustration: Getty/Sofia Ordonez/CNN

Virgin Records is born

Virgin Records is born

Virgin Records is born
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Richard Branson abandons his alternative youth magazine, “Student,” to form Virgin Records. It begins as a mail-order record company distributing discount albums and eventually includes a chain of record stores.

1972

The Manor opens
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The Manor opens
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The Manor opens
Source: Virgin

Branson purchases a palatial residence in Oxfordshire, England and uses it to open the first Virgin Records recording studio, called the Manor. The Sex Pistols, the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, The Smashing Pumpkins and Spice Girls would all eventually appear on Branson’s label.

1984

Taking on British Airways
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Taking on British Airways
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Taking on British Airways
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Branson and partners establish his airline, Virgin Atlantic. He got the idea after becoming stranded in Puerto Rico when his flight to the British Virgin Islands was cancelled for lack of passengers. Branson chartered a private plane, and as what he called a “joke,” wrote “Virgin Atlantic” on a chalkboard and sold tickets aboard the flight to other stranded travelers.

1987

Balloon rides lift off
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Balloon rides lift off
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Balloon rides lift off
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Branson launches The Virgin Airship and Balloon Company, which later becomes Virgin Balloon Flights. Branson, a hot-air-balloon enthusiast, was on the first balloon trip across the Atlantic Ocean in July — part of a Virgin Atlantic marketing scheme.

1992

Virgin Music Group sells to Thorn EMI
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Virgin Music Group sells to Thorn EMI
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Virgin Music Group sells to Thorn EMI
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Branson is forced to sell Virgin Records for a reported $1 billion shortly after signing the Rolling Stones. He needed the cash to help finance Virgin Atlantic amid legal battle with British Airways. Branson accused the air carrier of orchestrating a clandestine campaign to thwart his startup.

1993

Virgin v. British Airways
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Virgin v. British Airways
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Virgin v. British Airways
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Virgin Atlantic wins a libel case against competitor British Airways. Branson’s firm is awarded $945,000.

1995

Branson becomes a banker
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Branson becomes a banker
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Branson becomes a banker
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Virgin Direct Personal Financial Service launches and is later renamed Virgin Money. The venture evolves into a one-stop shop for banking, allowing customers to manage their finances with a single account.

1996

Virgin Brides
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Virgin Brides
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Virgin Brides
Source: Virgin

Branson wears a wedding dress for a charity event and to promote the launch of Virgin Brides in the United Kingdom. Established with the hopes of streamlining wedding planning, Virgin Brides stuck around for a few years — but it ultimately fails.

1998

Virgin Cola debuts stateside
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Virgin Cola debuts stateside
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Virgin Cola debuts stateside
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Branson rides through Times Square aboard a tank for the debut of Virgin Cola in the United States, ready to “blow up” the competition. The drink was eventually pushed out of business.

1999

Singapore Airlines takes a stake in Virgin Atlantic
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Singapore Airlines takes a stake in Virgin Atlantic
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Singapore Airlines takes a stake in Virgin Atlantic
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Virgin Atlantic sells a 49% stake to Singapore Airlines for £600 million. “This would give me the opportunity to invest in new businesses and reinvest in Virgin Atlantic’s customer experience,” Branson wrote in 2017.

2000

Branson becomes Sir Richard
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Branson becomes Sir Richard
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Branson becomes Sir Richard
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Branson is knighted after being named to the Queen's Millennium New Years Honours list for “service to entrepreneurship.”

Virgin takes on Australia
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Virgin takes on Australia
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Virgin takes on Australia
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Branson launches airline Virgin Blue, which later becomes Virgin Australia. He describes it as the “fastest-growing Virgin company of all time.” Virgin Mobile also debuts down under, with Branson driving a tank over the Sydney Harbour Bridge to announce its arrival.

2001

Branson expands his gym business
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Branson expands his gym business
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Branson expands his gym business
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Virgin Active opens in South Africa after Nelson Mandela called Branson personally, asking that he save the nation’s struggling Health & Racquet Club. Virgin Active later expands into the United Kingdom.

Virgin brings high-speed trains to the UK
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Virgin brings high-speed trains to the UK
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Virgin brings high-speed trains to the UK
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Virgin Trains, a British rail operator, unveils its first 140-mph Pendolino train. Branson said he was “amazed” by the speed of a Pendolino after he zipped from Turin to Rome aboard one and worked to bring the technology to the United Kingdom.

2002

Virgin Mobile arrives in the US
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Virgin Mobile arrives in the US
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Virgin Mobile arrives in the US
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Virgin Mobile USA is established. Branson wears a nude-colored bodysuit and rides into New York’s Times Square on a giant cell phone to announce its debut. Like other Virgin Mobile companies, Virgin purchases bandwidth from an established wireless operator -- in this case, with Sprint.

2004

Branson sets his sights on space
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Branson sets his sights on space
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Branson sets his sights on space
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Virgin Group announces Virgin Galactic, a space tourism venture, inspired by the technology that powered the first privately funded, crewed trips to space.

2007

Virgin America takes flight
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Virgin America takes flight
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Virgin America takes flight
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Branson promotes his American airline’s inaugural trip to Las Vegas by descending 350 feet down the side of the Palms Casino Resort Fantasy Tower.

2009

Sprint takes over Virgin Mobile
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Sprint takes over Virgin Mobile
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Sprint takes over Virgin Mobile
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Sprint purchases Virgin Mobile USA for $483 million.

2012

Virgin Galactic announces new technology that will send small satellites to orbit
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Virgin Galactic announces new technology that will send small satellites to orbit
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Virgin Galactic announces new technology that will send small satellites to orbit
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Virgin Galactic announces new technology that will send small satellites to orbit by launching a rocket mid-air from under the wing of a Boeing 747. The endeavor eventually breaks off to form sister company Virgin Orbit.

Virgin Atlantic gets new ownership
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Virgin Atlantic gets new ownership
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Virgin Atlantic gets new ownership
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Delta purchases Singapore Airlines’ 49% stake in Virgin Atlantic for $360 million.

2014

A test pilot is killed
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A test pilot is killed
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A test pilot is killed
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During a flight of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s supersonic spaceplane broke up. A pilot was injured and the co-pilot was killed.

2017

Virgin makes a play for military launch contracts
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Virgin makes a play for military launch contracts
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Virgin makes a play for military launch contracts
Source: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit spawns Vox Space, dedicated to landing US government contracts for the company. Branson also takes a stake in Hyperloop One, renaming the company Virgin Hyperloop One.

2018

Virgin reaches for space again –
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Virgin reaches for space again
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Three years after Virgin Galactic projected it would be rolling out commercial operations, the company resumes powered test flights of its SpaceShipTwo. Executives say commercial flights are months away.