Budding Kiwi space tourists ready to follow Sir Richard Branson

Nine New Zealanders are among budding astronauts booked to fly on Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket — VSS Unity. Lee Umbers spoke to the British billionaire — and some of the Kiwis who are paying up to $370,000 for the ultimate ticket to ride and the promise of the “best possible views of Earth and the blackness of space”.

When man first landed on the moon, a teenage Richard Branson watched the historic event in fascination on his family’s tiny black-and-white TV.

Gripped by astronaut Neil Armstrong’s immortal words – “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” – he was immediately inspired.

“I was instantly convinced I would be going to space one day,” the billionaire entrepreneur recalls in his 2017 autobiography Finding My Virginity.

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At 68, Branson is perhaps just months away from realising that dream and helping launch space tourism aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane VSS Unity.

Nine Kiwis are among the 600 budding astronauts booked to follow the British knight on the journeys to space that will cost US$250,000 (NZ$370,000).

Branson, who founded spaceflight company Virgin Galactic in 2004, told the Herald on Sunday he thinks “later this year or early the following year is the likely time that I’ll go up”.

“I would expect Unity to be successfully into space definitely this year.

“We’re getting very close now.”

As one of the first to sign up, in 2006, Christchurch-based internet and aerospace entrepreneur Mark Rocket should be on an early flight.

Kiwi businessman Mark Rocket hopes to go into space via Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket plane. Photo / Martin Hunter
Kiwi businessman Mark Rocket hopes to go into space via Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket plane. Photo / Martin Hunter

“It’s exciting,” Rocket says of his prospective “blast into space”. “I’m ready to go. Very keen.”

The 47-year-old, who helped set up Rocket Lab in New Zealand, has been captivated by space travel and technology since a young child, devouring books and movies on the subjects including the Star Wars classics.

His favourite movie is 1979 science-fiction horror Alien. While the plot did not have “the ideal outcome … I like the gritty realism”.

Rocket, who changed his name from Mark Stevens by deed poll, attended an international space development conference in Los Angeles after booking his Virgin Galactic flight.

One of the speakers was Buzz Aldrin, who followed fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Armstrong on to the moon’s surface in 1969.

“I noticed that all the activity was happening on one half of the planet and there was a whole Southern Hemisphere where there wasn’t too much happening,” Rocket says.

Returning to New Zealand, he became the seed investor and co-director of rocket-launch company Rocket Lab in 2007. Earlier this year he founded Kea Aerospace, a research partner with Canterbury University.

Groundbreaking Auckland surgeon John Dunn, 60, remembers being spellbound by the Apollo 11 landing – looking up at the moon “thinking they’re actually people walking around up there.”

“That fascinates me, the whole intrepidness of it.”

He signed up for a space flight in 2011 after meeting Branson at a gathering at Auckland’s Soul Bar.

Dunn, who helped introduce laparoscopic surgery to New Zealand in 1991 and has been a helicopter pilot for 20 years, says innovation and flight are key interests and he is enthralled by the Virgin Galactic programme.

Auckland surgeon John Dunn wiith a Virgin Galactic aircraft. Photo / Supplied
Auckland surgeon John Dunn wiith a Virgin Galactic aircraft. Photo / Supplied

For the avid traveller, whose journeys have included the Antarctic, the Arctic, Bhutan and North Korea, space is a unique new frontier.

“And I must admit, being a real boy, I can’t wait to feel the acceleration when they hit those rockets and just blast northwards,” he says.

Social entrepreneur Derek Handley, 40, booked his flight in 2009.

The former New Zealand Young Entrepreneur of the Year, whose Linkedin profile describes him as an “Astronaut in Waiting”, was fascinated with space as a child.

With the possibility that in his lifetime, mankind was “moving into an era where space travel or travelling through space becomes possible and accessible … if I could, I wanted to be at the front of that”.

The Virgin Galactic flights represent “that ever-present human desire to push the boundaries,” Handley says.

“In terms of all possible boundaries, if you go back thousands and thousands of years, the one that’s fascinated us all as a species is – what’s out there, and how do we get there?

“The idea that we penetrate and push outwards to other parts of the universe and our solar system are among the greatest fascinations and mysteries of mankind.”

Handley imagines the space flight itself, expected to be around two-and-a-half hours, will be “mindblowing”.

Up to six passengers at a time will ride in the Virgin Galactic flights – which had initially been priced at US$200,000, before rising US$250,000.

Two winged vehicles will be used to get the customers into space.

Derek Handley with famous physicist Stephen Hawking. Photo / Supplied
Derek Handley with famous physicist Stephen Hawking. Photo / Supplied

WhiteKnightTwo is a twin-fuselage aircraft which carries a smaller spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo (VSS Unity is the current one being flight-tested), to about 50,000 feet.

The spacecraft, with the passengers and two pilots, will be released from the aircraft and its rocket motor fired – sending it in a near-vertical climb through the thinning atmosphere and into space.

“A surge of energy will produce acceleration forces of around 3.5G and propel the spaceship to speeds approaching three-and-a-half times the speed of sound towards the black sky of space,” the Virgin Galactic website says.

“At the appropriate moment, the pilots will shut off the rocket motor, immediately allowing those on board to leave their seats for several minutes of true, unencumbered weightlessness.

“The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to give the best possible views of Earth and the blackness of space.”

A “feathered” tail system, likened to a badminton shuttlecock, will be deployed and the spacecraft re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere in that configuration before coasting down to Earth and landing as a glider at the Spaceport America launch site in New Mexico.

Dunn is looking forward to being able to “get into the blackness of space and get weightless, and look down on to the blue Earth – and apparently it really does change people”.

“When you look down at how thin the atmosphere is. They describe it like a coat of varnish on the Earth, but that’s what all life is sustained by, it gives you an apprecation for the [planet’s] vulnerability.

“It’s very pertinent these days, with climate change.”

Dunn thinks technogical advances from the Virgin Galactic programme may lead to suborbital flights for long-distance passenger routes – “say to go from Auckland to Heathrow in a few hours”.

“I think if we can get out of the atmosphere to travel across the globe, which this technology makes feasible, then that will be a huge advance environmentally.”

John Dunn wiith Sir Richard Branson. Photo / Supplied
John Dunn wiith Sir Richard Branson. Photo / Supplied

Handley thinks we’ll see a lot of new services and advancements through this kind of evolution in technology in space in the coming decade.

Among those is increasingly accessible satellite services, hopefully improving internet and other services for a far greater number of people around the world.

Branson tells the Herald on Sunday that Virgin in space is doing a lot of different things.

“Obviously one of those is putting people into space … and giving them an incredible experience.”

There was also Virgin Orbit “which will be putting satellites in space and helping connect [to the internet] the four billion people who are not connected”.

In Finding My Virginity, Branson says: “I believe that putting our faith in space travel serves, quite literally, a higher purpose.

“We could expand our understanding of the universe, explore the great unknown and improve countless lives back on earth.

“In the decades to come, we could be a precursor to further space exploration, which could lead to the colonisation of other planets and the eventual endurance of the human race.

“There can be no greater challenge.”

Tragedy struck the Virgin Galactic programme in 2014, with the crash of the first SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, during a test flight. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed and pilot Peter Siebold injured.

Handley says he was shocked seeing news of the crash on TV, but was certain the programme would continue. His own commitment to travel into space also didn’t waiver.

He wrote to Branson and the team passing on his condolences, and saying he was “still a million per cent behind them”.

There is probably some underlying concern among a number of his family members, “which I think will get much greater when the time gets closer”, Handley says.

The Virgin Galactic team’s continued safety testing of their craft should alleviate much of that however, he says.

Budding space tourists will take part in pre-flight programmes on-site at Spaceport America, including preparing them for microgravity and periods of high acceleration.

And Branson is already preparing himself physically for his flight.

Sir Richard Branson. Photo / Getty Images
Sir Richard Branson. Photo / Getty Images

He is taking part in the eight-day Virgin Strive Challenge, starting August 30, which includes cycling, sea kayaking and hiking from Sardinia to Mont Blanc between France and Italy, and scaling the highest mountain in the Alps.

“I should be ridiculously fit by the time that space flight happens,” Branson says.

Rocket, with several half-marathons under his belt, is training for the Queenstown Marathon in November.

He is also considering further centrifuge (high-G) training at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center at Philadelphia.

Dunn has also done the NASTAR centrifuge training.

“And I’ve done the zero gravity flights as well,” he said.

“They take you up in this (specially modified) Boeing and do parabolic curves. And it’s a fantastic feeling. You’re sort of floating around the cabin.”

Handley says being part of a community of prospective Virgin Galactic space tourists has been an experience.

Each year they are invited to multiple events to do with space and the future.

“One of the most amazing things that happened to me was I went to lunch with Stephen Hawking and just a dozen other future astronauts in Cambridge, which was just mindblowing.”

They had private tours of libraries containing works of such greats as Sir Isaac Newton and Galileo.

Rocket spent a week at Branson’s Necker Island home in the Caribbean.

“I first met Sir Richard on this tennis court at his home,” he says.

“He looked at me and asked, ‘Are you any good?’. I said, ‘I’m OK’, so we ended up being tennis partners.

“It was a nerve-wracking game for me because I know how much he likes to win, but thankfully we took the set.”

Handley had travelled to Necker Island in 2011.

The Victoria University graduate, who co-founded global mobile marketing and media company The Hyperfactory in 2001, had said he wanted to work on projects helping advance society and the environment through entrepreneurship or business.

He said he was going to donate a year of his time towards those causes.

Branson told him that evening, “I’ve got this idea to create a team of different global leaders who are trying to push the boundaries in these areas”, Handley says.

Handley became the founding CEO of The B Team – an initiative co-founded by Branson, which features leaders from around the world aimed at finding better ways of doing business for the wellbeing of people and the planet.

In 2015 Handley was named as a visionary leader on two Top 100 global leadership lists.

The Virgin Galactic programme took another step forward late last month when on its third powered test flight, VSS Unity ascended at almost 2.5 times the speed of sound and reached an altitude of 52km.

With his space flight now in sight, the Herald on Sunday asked Branson if he might play David Bowie’s Starman or Space Oddity on his journey.

Bowie had been signed to Virgin Records, co-founded by Branson.

“I’d love to. [But] I think it’s been done by somebody else,” he says.

“So I was thinking … The Rolling Stones were also on Virgin. And maybe Get Off of My Cloud.”