Sir Richard Branson is just as likely to be traversing the Atlantic in a hot-air balloon as hatching ideas for the Virgin Group's 200-odd businesses. The British CEO is ramping up U.S. operations, with plans for a new airline next year. He talked to TIME's Barbara Kiviat about planes, space travel and the band he let get away.
TIME You got on the wing of an airplane with Pamela Anderson to celebrate Virgin Atlantic's 21st anniversary. Will there come a point when you're too old to do those things?
RICHARD BRANSON Most likely, yes. And I've been backpedaling a bit. But I don't have any children of an age where they could step into my shoes and take on the baton. I've got a 19-year-old son, but I think it's important he doesn't end up doing my job just because he's my son.
TIME Airlines are a tough industry to be in these days. How have you done so well?
R.B. We spend enormous amounts of money to make sure we have the business market, with our limousines, our stand-up bars, our manicures. Because we've captured the business market, that's enabled us to keep fares at the back of the plane down.
TIME Why does the U.S. need another low-fare carrier?
R.B. In most businesses, America is superb at customer service. The American airline industry is not. We're not necessarily saying it needs another low-cost carrier. I do believe it needs the kind of carrier that's more akin to Virgin Atlantic.
TIME Do you ever kick yourself for not joining David Neeleman when he wanted to start JetBlue with you?
R.B. Yes. I'm not somebody who looks back and has enormous regret, but there's no question that was a mistake.
TIME Made any others?
R.B. I failed to sign Dire Straits. And I say yes to more things than I perhaps should. To some people, that's a mistake. At head office, my nickname is Dr. Yes.
TIME Virgin Galactic is supposed to start commercial flights to space in 2 1/2 years. At $200,000 a ticket, how much of a market do you think there is for space tourism?
R.B. There is a gigantic market. We've had 40,000 people put their names down. We've gone to the first hundred and said, We need you to pay a $200,000 deposit up front. And all hundred have paid that price. We're now going after the others. A lot of people are going to drop away when it comes to putting up hard cash, but after five or seven years, I think we'll be able to start bringing prices down and enable more people to go up in space. I hope that in my lifetime, Virgin Galactic will be taking people to a beautiful hotel on the moon.
TIME So this is really going to happen?
R.B. There've already been four successful flights of SpaceShipOne, which is the basic technology. People have been extremely skeptical about almost everything I've ever launched. I think we've proven that we deliver on things we say we're going to deliver on. And we certainly will deliver on this.
TIME Who are your role models?
R.B. Nelson Mandela. I suspect he's the greatest living person of the last 100 years. As far as business, Herb Kelleher, [founder of] Southwest [Airlines], is incredible. The only problem is, when I have lunch with him, I end up starting to smoke again, so I'm trying not to see him for a while.
TIME We're not going to see a second season of The Rebel Billionaire, are we?