Another round of “What’s in a name?”

Although Richard Branson wasn’t present at the ORBIT Awards dinner Thursday night, he did give an acceptance speech by video at the event. He revealed the early origins of the name “Virgin Galactic”: “Back in 1992, I registered the name “Virgin Galactic Airways”. I registered it because I loved the sound of the name, but also I thought it would be a way of spurring everybody at Virgin to go out and try and find a reusable space vehicle that would be possible for tourists to use one day.”

Will Whitehorn of Virgin Galactic, who picked up the award for Branson, offered a slightly different recollection of the name. Whitehorn said his boss is “slightly dyslexic” and sometimes gets dates mixed up; Virgin Galactic was actually founded in 1999, not 1992. The inspiration, he said, came while Branson, Steve Fossett, and Per Lindstrand were in Morocco in late 1998 for their launch a balloon on a round-the-world flight. Buzz Aldrin was there to see the balloon launch, and they ended up in a bar talking while waiting for weather conditions to improve. The conversation, Whitehorn recounted, came around to a discussion about why NASA always launched rockets from the ground, at which time Aldrin talked about early air-launch concepts. “You know, there’s got to be a better way to do this, and we better find it,” Whitehorn recalled Branson as saying to him at the time. “We better register the company name now, in case someone else tries to use the Virgin name for space tourists.”

That timing makes some sense, since Virgin Galactic first popped up on people’s radars in the industry in the spring of 1999, when there were reports that this new Virgin Galactic venture was in negotiations with Rotary Rocket Company, something that Whitehorn confirmed in a speech at last year’s ISDC.

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