email a friend iconprinter friendly iconLifetime Achievement: Sir Richard Branson + Will Steger
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Like Steger, Branson was something of an adventure prodigy. Unlike Steger, he had it thrust upon him. Branson's mother, Eve, is a former flight attendant who served with the RAF during World War II. One day when Ricky was four, she left him in the countryside with a sack lunch and told him to find his way home. A neighbor eventually discovered him chasing butterflies. A few years later Eve dropped him 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home with his bike. "I'm sure you'll find water along the way," she told him, waving goodbye.

If Steger is the prototypical methodical old-school adventurer, Branson is the very model for the modern one—rich, daring, and easily bored. His nickname could be "Lucky." In 1974, when marlin fishing off Cozumel, he swam two miles (three kilometers) from a storm-crippled boat to shore. In 1977 he volunteered to pilot the maiden voyage of a sort of tricycle with wings and managed to land the contraption after soaring hundreds of feet in the air; its inventor was killed a week later after attempting the same thing. Branson once took skydiving lessons and inadvertently unhooked his own parachute mid-flight; a jump instructor rescued him before he hit the ground. Records set crossing the Atlantic by speedboat and hot air balloon were preceded by failed attempts that ended with Branson and crew stuck in the freezing sea. (Not long after Branson's trip to Nunavut, he was battered by high winds while rappelling down Nevada's Palms Casino Resort, promoting Virgin America's new San Francisco to Las Vegas route.) All told he's been plucked from the ocean by rescue helicopters on five different occasions.

Branson's next major project will be his most audacious. In 2004, under the name Virgin Galactic, he licensed the technology behind SpaceShipOne, aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan's low-altitude spacecraft. Virgin has already collected its $200,000 round-trip fare from 175 passengers who will blast off from the Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico and travel 68 miles (109 kilometers) above the Earth—a two-and-a-half-hour flight. The first launch is slated for 2009.

Though his environmental credentials were always fairly solid—he was knighted in part for his work as "Litter Czar" during the Thatcher era—Branson was a latecomer to global warming. "Until four or five years ago I subscribed to the theory of Danish academic Bjørn Lomborg, whose book The Skeptical Environmentalist challenges the idea that man is responsible for global warming," he says. "It provides a sort of balm for big business, maybe especially airline owners. And then I read Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers and met with Al Gore and realized that the truth is that CO2 is like a brush fire that gets bigger every year. All of us who are in a position to do something about it must do something about it." To that end Virgin is investing $3 billion in alternative fuel research in the next ten years, including, Branson says, a top secret kind of ultraclean fuel.

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