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Richard Branson’s space flight had a key Tampa Bay business connection

Tampa Bay Partnership president and CEO Rick Homans, who recruited Branson to New Mexico, was on hand for the flight.
Tampa Bay Partnership president and CEO Rick Homans was on hand for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space flight at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, N.M. on Saturday. Homans was a key figure in the spaceport's development and helped recruit Branson's company to base its headquarters there.
Tampa Bay Partnership president and CEO Rick Homans was on hand for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space flight at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, N.M. on Saturday. Homans was a key figure in the spaceport's development and helped recruit Branson's company to base its headquarters there. [ Tampa Bay Partnership ]
Published Jul. 12

Sunday capped a roller coaster of a month for Rick Homans.

In late June, Homans was in Santa Fe, N.M., as his 95-year-old mother passed away. Three weeks later, he was down near the Mexican border to celebrate what he calls his “legacy project”: Sunday’s historic space flight by billionaire Richard Branson.

Homans, the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, was a key figure in the development of Spaceport America, the world’s first commercial space terminal near Truth or Consequences, N.M., and the site of Branson’s launch. As the state’s economic development secretary, and later the spaceport’s executive director, Homans was among those who recruited Branson’s Virgin Galactic to make the terminal its home base.

That led to a personal invite to the launch from Branson himself. And Homans was going to do whatever it took to be there.

“It’s the biggest and most exciting project I’ve worked on in my life,” Homans said. “No matter where I had been on the globe, I would have made my way to Spaceport America for this launch.”

Related: Billionaire Richard Branson reaches space in his own ship

Homans moved to Tampa in 2012, first to lead the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, and then the Tampa Bay Partnership, a coalition of local business leaders aiming to improve the local quality of life. But before that, he was “critical in the creation of the Spaceport,” former Gov. Bill Richardson said earlier this spring.

It was Homans who made the final pitch to get Richardson to support more than $200 million in public funding for the project; who flew to London to pitch Virgin Galactic executives on the project; and who was brainstorming spaceport names on a helicopter ride with Branson when the billionaire proposed “Spaceport America.”

Richard Branson, left, and Tampa Bay Partnership president and CEO Rick Homans met up at a Virgin Trains USA launch event in Miami on April 4, 2019.
Richard Branson, left, and Tampa Bay Partnership president and CEO Rick Homans met up at a Virgin Trains USA launch event in Miami on April 4, 2019. [ Courtesy of Rick Homans ]

Branson and Homans have stayed in touch. So when it came time to bring the project full circle, the billionaire reached out.

“He was very gracious,” Homans said. “He said, ‘This project would not have happened without your leadership, and of course I’d like to have you there with us.’”

Homans drove down last Friday, hanging out with Branson and his team at a rented villa near the spaceport. They all got up at 2:15 a.m. Sunday, ready to get on a bus to the spaceport for a morning launch. It was the first time Homans had been to the Spaceport since 2010.

The most resonant moment, he said, was watching Branson’s space plane Unity detach from its “mother ship,” VMS Eve, named for Branson’s late mother, and blast into sub-orbital space at a speed of more than Mach 3.

“I gave a few tears at that moment,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. That was the moment that everyone was waiting and watching (for), and hoping it would go successfully.”

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson carries crew member Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders while celebrating their flight to space at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M. on July 11.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson carries crew member Sirisha Bandla on his shoulders while celebrating their flight to space at Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences, N.M. on July 11. [ ANDRES LEIGHTON | AP ]

Branson’s flight, which went more than 53 miles into the air, giving the crew a few minutes of weightlessness at the edge of outer space, is a milestone in the burgeoning commercial space industry. Another billionaire, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is set to launch his own spacecraft from West Texas on July 20. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who attended Branson’s launch, has also purchased a seat on an upcoming Virgin Galactic flight, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Back in 2005, there was clearly an element of fantasy and perhaps even craziness to the concept,” Homans said. “Today, there is a whole lot more legitimacy that surrounds commercial space flight. And that’s what we’d hoped for.”

Related: Tampa Bay Partnership's Rick Homans stepping down as as president and CEO

Homans has announced he’s stepping down from his role with the Tampa Bay Partnership later this year. He hasn’t outlined any future plans, though he’s ruled out returning to the space industry unless he’s invited as a passenger.

“If I got a call saying, ‘Rick, would you like to go?’” he said, “the answer would be an unequivocal yes.”