Kiwi entrepreneur signs up for space trip

New Zealand entrepreneur Derek Handley is among more than 380 people who have paid a 10 per cent deposit on their US$200,000 ($267,000) tickets for the first rides on Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space flights.

Asked why he signed up, Handley told the El Paso Times: "Why wouldn't you? This is the future. Part of it is the fascination of seeing the Earth from up there."

In 2001, Handley founded Auckland mobile marketing and media company The Hyperfactory, with his brother Geoffrey Handley, and he is now based in New York overseeing its global strategic growth, according to the company's website.

The Hyperfactory website said Handley was New Zealand's youngest managing director of a listed company at the age of 22, when he led online racing and sports betting company Feverpitch to list on the New Zealand stock exchange a decade ago.

"When not talking mobile or media, Derek spends time thinking about being an astronaut," it said.

Handley, 32, said: "Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money, but I think it's a fair price for this life experience".

He was speaking as the world's first commercial passenger spaceship moved a step closer to takeoff, with Branson unveiling a new runway at his remote New Mexico spaceport, near the town of Las Cruces where the Virgin Galactic project is based.

The opening of the US$212 million spaceport was marked by a flight of VSS Enterprise - the six-seat craft which is scheduled to carry paying customers into suborbital space by early 2012 - above the new 3.2km long, 60m wide runway, carried by its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo.

The spaceship's cabin is designed so that passengers can float in zero gravity.

Ultimately, as more tourists begin using the space service, the price will come down, according to Sir Richard, who told Reuters there were four or five companies interested in Nasa's US$50 million programme for developing commercial-crew spaceflight concepts, as part of President Barack Obama's bid to bolster support for private space companies.

He said Virgin Galactic was in discussions with two of the companies about teaming up and would decide over the next month whether to do so or go it alone.

"We plan to be in orbital travel within the next few years," he said.

- NZPA

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