On cloud nine: Budding Kiwi space tourists prepared 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 — plus some of the Kiwis that are paying around $370,000 for the best ticket to ride and the promise of the “greatest 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 inspired immediately.

“I was instantly convinced I’d be likely to space 1 day,” the billionaire entrepreneur recalls in his 2017 autobiography Finding My Virginity.


At 68, Branson could very well be just months from realising that dream and helping launch space tourism aboard his Virgin Galactic rocket plane VSS Unity.

Nine Kiwis are on the list of 600 budding astronauts booked to check out the British knight on the journeys to space which 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 season or early the next year may be the likely time that I’ll rise”.

“I’d expect Unity to be successfully into space definitely this season.

“We’re getting very close now.”

As among the first to join up, in 2006, Christchurch-based aerospace and internet entrepreneur Mark Rocket ought to be on an early on flight.

Kiwi businessman Mark Rocket hopes to get into space via Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic rocket plane. Photo / Martin Hunter
Kiwi businessman Mark Rocket hopes to get 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 all set. Very keen.”

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

His favourite movie is 1979 science-fiction horror Alien. As the plot didn’t have “the perfect outcome … I love the gritty realism”.

Rocket, who changed his name from Mark Stevens by deed poll, attended a global space development conference in LA after booking his Virgin Galactic flight.

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

“I pointed out that all of the activity was happening using one half of the earth and there is a complete Southern Hemisphere where there wasn’t an excessive amount of happening,” Rocket says.

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

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

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

He enrolled in an area 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 contains been a helicopter pilot for twenty years, says flight and innovation are fundamental interests and he could be 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, the Antarctic have already been included by whose journeys, the Arctic, North and bhutan Korea, space is really a unique new frontier.

“And I have to admit, being truly a real boy, I cannot wait to have the acceleration if they hit those rockets and just blast northwards,” he says.

Social entrepreneur Derek Handley, 40, booked his flight in ’09 2009.

The former New Zealand Young Entrepreneur of the entire year, whose Linkedin profile describes him being an “Astronaut in Waiting”, was captivated by space as a kid.

With the chance that in his lifetime, mankind was “getting into a time where space travel or travelling through space becomes accessible and possible … easily could, I needed to be at the front end of this”.

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

“With regards to all possible boundaries, in the event that you go thousands of years back, the main one that’s fascinated people as a species is – what’s on the market, and just how do we make it happen?

“The theory that people penetrate and push outwards to other areas of the universe and our solar system are on the list of greatest fascinations and mysteries of mankind.”

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

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

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

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

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

The spacecraft, with the passengers and two pilots, will undoubtedly be released from the aircraft and its own 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 correct moment, the pilots shall shut down the rocket motor, immediately allowing those up to speed to leave their seats for a few minutes of true, unencumbered weightlessness.

“The pilots will manoeuvre the spaceship to provide the perfect views of Earth and the blackness of space.”

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

Dunn is getting excited about to be able to “enter the blackness of space and obtain weightless, and appearance down to the blue Earth – and apparently it certainly does change people”.

“Once you look down at how thin the atmosphere is. It really is described by them such as a coat of varnish on the planet earth, but that’s what all life is sustained by, it offers you an apprecation for the [planet’s] vulnerability.

“It is rather pertinent nowadays, with climate change.”

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

“I believe if we are able to get from the atmosphere to visit around the world, which this technology makes feasible, which will be an enormous advance environmentally then.”

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

Handley thinks we’ll visit a large amount of new services and advancements through this sort of evolution in technology in space in the coming decade.

Among those is increasingly accessible satellite services, hopefully improving internet along with other services for a lot more people all over the world far.

Branson tells the Herald on Sunday that Virgin in space does plenty of various things.

“Obviously among those is putting people into space … and providing them with an unbelievable experience.”

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

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

“We’re able to expand our knowledge of the universe, explore the fantastic unknown and improve countless lives on the planet back.

“In the decades ahead, we could be considered a precursor to help expand space exploration, that could result in the colonisation of other planets and the eventual endurance of the people.

“There may be no greater challenge.”

Tragedy struck the Virgin Galactic programme in 2014, with the crash of the initial SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, throughout 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. Their own commitment to visit into space also didn’t waiver.

He wrote to Branson and the team passing on his condolences, and saying he was “still a million % in it”.

There is most likely some underlying concern among several his members of the family, “that i think are certain to get much greater once the time gets closer”, Handley says.

The Virgin Galactic team’s continued safety testing of these craft should alleviate a lot of that however, he says.

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

And Branson has already been preparing himself physically for his flight.

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

He is getting involved in the eight-day Virgin Strive Challenge, august 30 starting, which include cycling, sea kayaking and hiking from Sardinia to Mont Blanc between Italy and France, and scaling the best mountain in the Alps.

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

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

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

Dunn in addition has done the NASTAR centrifuge training.

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

“They take you up in this (specially modified) Boeing and do parabolic curves. And it’s really an excellent feeling. You’re type of going swimming the cabin.”

Handley says being section of a residential area of prospective Virgin Galactic space tourists has been an event.

Each year they’re invited to multiple events related to space and the near future.

“The most amazing items that happened certainly to me was I visited lunch with Stephen Hawking and only a dozen other future astronauts in Cambridge, which was mindblowing just.”

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

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

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

“He viewed me and asked, ‘Are you worthwhile?’. I said, ‘I’m OK’, so we finished up being tennis partners.

“It had been a nerve-wracking game for me personally because I understand just how much he loves to win, but we took the set thankfully.”

Handley had travelled to Necker Island in 2011.

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

He said he would donate per year of his time towards those causes.

Branson told him that evening, “I’ve got this notion to make a team of different global leaders that are attempting 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 of progress 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 around the corner, the Herald on Sunday asked Branson if he could play David Bowie’s Starman or Space Oddity on his journey.

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

“I’d want to. [But] I believe it has been done by someone else,” he says.

“THEREFORE I was thinking … The Rolling Stones were on Virgin also. And Get From My Cloud maybe.”