Kiwis booked on world's first commercial space flight

By Heather McCracken

Space enthusiast Mark Rocket has been waiting six years for seat on one of the world's first commercial space flights - but says it will be worth the wait.

The Christchurch entrepreneur booked his flight with Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic in 2006, originally expecting to fly within two years.

With the spaceline's first rocket-powered test flight last month, he now hopes to make his sub-orbital flight within a year.

"The reality is what they're doing is incredibly difficult so I think the marketing machine got ahead of the technology department," he said.

Mr Rocket, who changed his name by deed poll, said he signed up for the once-in-a-lifetime space experience, and to support the technology. "Also because the whole package appealed to me. Virgin Galactic is shaping up to be a great company."

He's visited Spaceport America, where the spaceline will operate in New Mexico, and seen the rockets being built at the company's base in Mojave, California.

He also undertook centrifuge training for a taste of the six Gs - six times the force of gravity - that would be experienced during space flight.

"It's kind of like six people of your own body weight lying on top of you," he said. "Pretty intense and a lot of fun."

Space flights cost just over $234,000 (US$200,000) and so far eight New Zealanders have booked, spending more than $1.8 million in total.

House of Travel, an accredited space agent for Virgin Galactic in New Zealand, said those who had signed up came from all walks of life.

"What they have in common is an absolute passion for space. They have all always thought they'd go to space at some point in their lifetimes," said Katrina Cole, House of Travel Botany Junction director.

An Auckland surgeon who has booked to fly, but did not want to be named, said the cost was significant but "in terms of space travel it is an absolute bargain".

"In my work as a surgeon I am thrilled and attracted by innovation and technical skill and bravery," he said.

"In my hobby as a pilot over the last 20 years every single flight has been accompanied by the excitement and slight disbelief of the unlikely nature of what I am doing."

The 54-year-old said having an insight into Branson's company was also reward for the investment, including being able to attend Virgin Galactic events in London and Los Angeles.

He said the technology was environmentally important, and if sub-orbital travel could be perfected, would become the main way we travel around the globe.

This month Virgin Galactic said more than $70 million in booking deposits had been accepted from about 580 people.

The spaceline recently completed the first rocket-powered flight of its space vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, in Mojave.

The test marks the start of the final phase of vehicle testing before commercial services begin.

Virgin Galactic's spacecraft will accommodate six passengers and two pilots, and are expected to eventually do around five commercial flights a day, each reaching an altitude of over 359,000 feet.

- APNZ

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