Sir Richard Branson said he was very much looking forward to “looking straight back down at the Earth through those windows" of SpaceShipTwo. Credit: Handout.

I was on a bus to Cambodia.

Every few months, I had to make the five-hour, one-way journey, and back, from Bangkok, to stamp my passport, so I could earn a another month or so at Nation Multimedia.

I was working illegally, of course, and skirting the forces that be. In a way it was kind of exciting, but frightening too.

The punishment for working in illegally in Thailand could be stern, but it seemed like everyone else was doing it too.

Anyway, it was a very good bus firm, that arranged everything. It was air-conditioned, thank god, showed movies, and, we had a good lunch served to us, at the halfway point.

Staff were friendly, too.

By chance, my seatmate was an interesting man. He was a teacher, and, on his third Thai wife.

A handsome English fellow, he was a former big-time restauranteur/chef in London, until things went sideways.

One day, he got invited to a big do. A really big do. It seems, Sir Richard Branson, on one of his adventures, had ended up in the drink.

His balloon ride across the Atlantic had been perilous, forcing Branson to bail out by jumping into the sea after writing a farewell note to his family in case he didn’t survive.

Luckily, a cruise ship came to his rescue — and the entire crew were invited to a special picnic/concert, as a reward for their heroics.

My seatmate — let’s call him Peter — was serving food at this get-together. He recounted as Branson came over to him, and said, dryly, “Can a fellow get a burger at this establishment?”

Peter smiled, and said, “Possibly.”

So he made the Big Guy a burger, the best he could do. And, they chatted for a bit, Branson asked him his name, and left.

A couple weeks later, Peter gets a call from “Branson’s people.”

“Would you be interested in filling in for the cook, at Mr. Branson’s recording studio?,” they asked.

Of course, who wouldn’t — Peter jumped at it!

And so, he would get to know Sir Richard Branson, in a way that most people don’t experience — quietly and intimately. No filters, no bull***t.

Known for his wild adventures, Branson — the one-man publicity circus, as he has been called — is preparing for what would be the biggest stunt of all: A rollicking ride to the edge of space in the spaceplane developed by Virgin Galactic, the venture he founded in 2004 that he vowed would become the world’s first “commercial spaceline.”

SpaceShipTwo has two pilots as well as a crew of four, and Branson’s flight would be the first time the company has attempted a spaceflight with all six seats filled. Credit: Virgin Galactic.

The company had planned to fly a test flight with four crew members in the cabin, and then fly Branson.

But after Jeff Bezos announced he would fly on his company’s spacecraft to the edge of space on July 20, Branson jumped the line and said he would board Virgin Galactic’s next space flight and — conditions permitting — beat Bezos by nine days (July 11).

As we rode the bus to the Cambodian border, I decided to pump as much information I could get out of Peter.

I wanted to know what made Sir Richard tick, and this was my chance.

This was an inside track to the man who would set up Virgin Records before moving into transport, telecommunications and health among many other sectors and whose Virgin Group boasted more than 100 companies pre-Covid.

Firstly, why did he do these crazy, record breaking stunts — kite surfing between England and France, crossing the Atlantic Ocean by speedboat in just three days, and then spanning the Pacific in a hot-air balloon, etc.

Peter said, yes, he asked him that.

Branson’s answer was simple, “I’m bored,” he said. Nothing more than that. “I’m bored.”

Next question — did Branson earn his wealth?

The answer was, no, he didn’t … he admitted to inheriting his wealth.

Was he a nice guy, I asked. I mean, c’mon, honestly.

Well, said Peter, a lot of people don’t think so, but in his candid discussions with Sir Richard, he said he was always friendly, gracious and not overbearing in any way.

The man who once said kids spend too many years in school and should be travelling the world instead, was just a regular guy.

That’s a far cry from the attention-seeking, media personality we all know and, sort of love.

By the time we had sorted all that out, I had talked Peter’s ear off. We arrived at the Cambodian border, where, there was a guy sitting at a desk, in the middle of the jungle.

Seriously.

This guy took my passport, along with all the others on the bus, and we all went back to wait at the border station. I would get it back, in due time, with a new visa. I was good for another 30 days!

It seems Peter had enough of my questions, and sat with someone else on the way back to Bangkok. Perhaps, as a journalist, I had been too probing. Or maybe he just didn’t like me.

Jeff Bezos, seen here at the Space Symposium, says the higher altitude Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle will put it at an advantage over Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which has yet to reach the Karman Line. Credit: Chuck Bigger for SpaceNews.

I never saw the guy again.

Nevertheless, it was a fascinating insight, into Sir Richard Branson.

Branson — who’ll turn 71 July 18 — ensured his spaceflight attempt would get even more publicity when he announced that he would accelerate the test flight schedule.

In making the announcement, Branson simultaneously reveled in the attention it generated while downplaying any competition.

He told The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, “I completely understand why the press would write that.”

He added that it was just “an incredible, wonderful coincidence that we’re going up in the same month.”

But when asked about a rivalry with Bezos on CNBC, he couldn’t help himself, saying, “Jeff who?”

Branson’s antics elicited a strong response from Bezos’ Blue Origin, which prides itself on being quiet, letting its actions speak for themselves.

Bob Smith, Blue Origin’s CEO, issued a statement last week wishing Branson well but also pointing out that Virgin Galactic is “not flying above the Kármán line, and it’s a very different experience.”

The Kármán line, at 100 km or 62 miles above sea level, is an internationally recognized threshold for where space begins.

Virgin Galactic flies to just over 50 miles, an altitude at which the Federal Aviation Administration will award crew members astronaut wings.

On Twitter Friday, Blue Origin pressed that point again and took a swipe at its competitor, saying Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane doesn’t have an escape system, and that it has only reached its maximum altitude three times, compared to 15 for Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule.

The company also pointed out that its windows were larger, providing a better view, and it alleged that Virgin Galactic’s hybrid rocket engine is far more harmful to the environment.

The back and forth comments, reminded me a bit what famed test pilot Chuck Yeager said, about commercial space travel.

Said Yeager: “To me is a bunch of crap trying to shoot guys up into damned space. What they’re going to do is they’re going to wipe out half a dozen (people) one of these days, and that will be the end of it.”

One pilot, Michael Alsbury, who was 39 and had two young children, was killed in a 2014 test mishap.

The spacecraft came apart during a test flight when one of the pilots prematurely unlocked a device designed to reorient the spacecraft once it is in space. 

Another, Peter Siebold, suffered serious injuries after parachuting to the ground.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the catastrophe on human error but also said the design was flawed. After the accident, Virgin Galactic took over full control of the test program and design, which had been overseen by Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman subsidiary.

Shaken, Branson considered giving up, saying human spaceflight was too difficult and dangerous. But in the end, he decided that the risk was worth it and that the company would bounce back, stronger and more resilient.

 If all goes well, the company plans to begin commercial operations, flying the 600 or so people who have put down significant deposits.

Branson said he was very much looking forward to “looking straight back down at the Earth through those windows.”

So let’s hope Mr. Yeager is wrong, and, safety remains first and foremost.

And may the best billionaire win.

— With files from The Washington Post