Q&A: Richard Branson

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STEPHEN SHORTRichard Branson, 48, is CEO of the Virgin Group and one of the world's premier balloonists. TIME caught up with him on his mobile phone as he prepared for a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, before heading off to his private Necker Island for a one-month holiday.

Q: Did you weep when you heard that the Breitling Orbiter 3 trip had succeeded?
A: As an entrepreneur, one is used to not succeeding in what one wants to achieve--and we had 15 fascinating years, incredible experiences and adventure. But no, I was still pleased for Bertrand Piccard, who is a really good friend. But you know, apart from that, I really wanted to throttle him.

Q: Your failed round-the-world balloon flight in December couldn't have done much for your relations with China. How did that work?
A: Well, I had this slightly bizarre situation in that the day I learned Virgin Atlantic had been given the Shanghai license was exactly the same day we'd just crossed China in a balloon. In fact, we'd just crossed Shanghai and were four hours out to sea before I got the news. We weren't really meant to be there in the first place, so publicly we still had to apologize to the Chinese. But it was nice of them that between us we managed to keep the two things separate.

Q: So what's next?
A: My basic instinct is to start looking forward and thinking where next. I'm afraid I'm doing that but also trying not to at the same time. Mixed emotions. We are planning a trans-global balloon race with as many nations as possible. And there's one other challenge that I'm not allowed to talk about at the moment, which I might take up.

Q: Not a low-orbit balloon flight is it?
A: Er ... I really have been told to keep my mouth shut, as people are trying to talk me out of it. Story of my life.