Branson’s space flight: The six Kiwis who are now close to a Virgin Galactic ride

A number of Kiwis are poised to follow Sir Richard Branson into space following the entrepreneur’s successful test flight overnight.

Christchurch-based entrepreneur Mark Rocket was one of the “founders”, or the 70 people who bought one of the first batch of tickets released in 2006 (when a ticket cost US$200,000; the price has since increased to US$250,000).

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Rocket says the word from Virgin Galactic is that the first flight with paying customers should be in our autumn, or the northern hemisphere spring, next year.

He expects there will be a ballot to decide the order in which the founder customers fly over the first series of flights, with the 600 or so who have also booked then following in chronological order.

He does not have an exact date yet – three more test flights must be carried out before the first commercial launch – but says he will be required to go to the private space company’s space port in New Mexico several days early. A three-day training programme at the facility involved a medical check, plus centrifuge and zero-gravity training.

An hour-long flight involves 15 minutes in space and about four minutes of weightlessness.

Sir Richard and his five co-passengers would have felt a force up to 3.5 times their normal weight as “VSS Unity” – about the size of a private jet – accelerated to a height of around 80km after being dropped from a larger plane at 15km high then igniting its engines.

Is Rocket nervous? “Not at all,” he told the Herald this morning. “Maybe once I’m sitting in the rocket on launch day.”

In the meantime, he has plenty to keep himself occupied. Rocket – who changed his surname from Stevens two decades ago to reflect his enthusiasm for the space industry – was an early backer and director of Rocket Lab before he had a parting of opinion with founder Peter Beck over military clients.

Rocket confirmed he still has shares in Rocket Lab, however, and is looking forward to its Nasdaq listing, at a US$4.1 billion valuation, in a couple of months’ time. “It’s going to be a great reward for all the hard work they’ve been doing, and great for this country.”

He declined to comment on the size of his stake, which is somewhere below the five per cent disclosure threshold. Earlier, Beck said if it reached its anticipated valuation, the Rocket Lab listing would turn more than 100 past and present Rocket Lab staff into millionaires, and leave 180 with holdings worth at least $180,00, due to a scheme that saw shares granted to top performers.

Rocket also recently raised $5 million for his startup Kea Aerospace, which is developing a super high-flying drone with a 32m wingspan.

Almost government chief technology officer Derek Handley is another Kiwi who will likely soon be in space, or at least on the edge of it.

The ex-Sky TV director and AUT Adjunct Professor is still in the midst of a self-imposed three-year ban on talking to the media but the Herald understands he is placed around 300 in the queue of 600 regular ticket holders, and expects to fly in about two years’ time.

Christchurch real estate agent Jackie Maw dropped off the wait-list and sold her ticket back to Virgin Galactic in 2011. She told the Herald the Christchurch quakes led her to change her life priorities.

But Auckland surgeon and philanthropist John Dunn, who signed up for a spaceplane ticket in 2011 after meeting Sir Richard at a gathering at Auckland’s Soul Bar, is still as keen as mustard.

“The launch went well this morning. I was glued to the TV,” Dunn told the Herald.

“Hopefully they will start taking passengers next year.”

Three years after Dunn bought his ticket, a SpaceShipTwo test flight crashed in the Mojave desert, with the accident claiming the life of a Virgin Galactic VSS Enterprise co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold, who was thrown free from the craft and able to open his parachute in time, although he suffered temporary degradation of his sight until a surgeon removed a shard of fibreglass from his right eye.

But even in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the surgeon held his nerve.

He told Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking that although his decision was contingent the outcome of the crash investigation, “I want to stay with the project. I think it’s really important. There’s so much more to this than fling a few thrill-seekers into space. The end game here – as Richard’s often said – is point-to-point travel, employing sub-orbital techniques.” Flight from Auckland to Heathrow in a few hours could be possible.

He added, “I don’t think this is a totally risk-free endeavour, no matter how much work you do. When you think of the innovation of every new vehicle, whether it’s a car or a plane or a submarine or a helicopter, there’s been tragedy and loss of life and risk. And this is a unique vehicle, so I don’t think the risk will ever be totally out of it.”

Dunn said Sir Richard had offered a refund to those who changed their mind.

He would also be in a position to absorb the loss more than most, regardless. In 2015, the surgeon and his wife set an Auckland real estate record when they sold their clifftop Herne Bay home for $24m.

The couple have also been involved in a number of philanthropic efforts, including their $1 million donation in 2019 to found a new endowment fund to help more Pasifika students become doctors.

And for more than 15 years, Dunn has donated his time and equipment to perform ground-breaking laparoscopic surgery at Rarotonga Hospital in the Cook Islands.

Another Kiwi with a Virgin Galactic ticket – polar adventurer Ross Maxwell – could not be immediately contacted. Dunn said Maxwell was in New Mexico to watch this morning’s launch live.

He’ll be joined by Ron Stroeven, the Auckland owner of data company Infotools, and another tech industry figure, Ian Bailey.

The six Kiwis

Katrina Cole, who heads House of Travel;’s “Travel Galactic” unit, sold the tickets for five of the six Kiwis who are going to space with Virgin Galactic (the full complement is Mark Rocket, Derek Handley, John Dunn, Ross Maxell, Ron Stroeven and Ian Bailey). She also helps to arrange logistics.

Cole said Virgin Galactic has just reopened sales on the back of Sir Richard’s successful flight. The price hasn’t been set for the new round of tickets, but could be north of US$250,000. She expected confirmation from Virgin shortly.

The agent said she would like to go to space herself, “But the travel industry hasn’t been so great lately.”

The six budding Kiwi space tourists had a catch-up dinner at Dunn’s place in May.

“It’s an interesting group,” he said.

“Mark is the most clued up and Derek is close to Richard.

“Most of us are just enthusiastic eccentrics who want the opportunity to experience weightlessness in the blackness of space.”

Cole added that, at one point, Virgin told her that NZ had the highest number of ticket holders per capita.

Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck did not buy a Virgin Galactic ticket.

“As an engineer, I think I probably understand the risks too well,” he said in mid-2019.

But now the lay of the land has changed. Rocket Lab recently announced a much larger rocket called the Neutron, which is scheduled to blast off for the first time in 2024.

The new vehicle will initially carry payloads for the US Department of Defense and commercial customers into space, but will also have the capacity and capability to take people into space.

Could Beck be one of them, one day?

He’s still not super-keen for a space jaunt, but he’s leaving the door open – at least a nudge.

“I’m a nervous flyer at the best of times, so I’m always looking out at the wing of an aircraft and calculating the safety on the wing spars. But I think anything we build here will be of typical Rocket Lab quality, so I’ll have to assess it on the day.”

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