This morning's big news in the fast-growing space sector is that Sir Richard Branson is planning an IPO for Virgin Galactic, which will value his passengers-to-space startup at US$1.5 billion.

The Herald was curious if Rocket Lab founder Peter Beck had shelled out US$250,000 ($357,000) for a ticket on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (which has yet to announce a date for its first commercial flight, although Branson says it's getting close).

Was he one of the 600 or so people in the queue, who have plonked down a collective US$80 million in deposits?

"No," Beck replied. "It's a sub-orbital flight."

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And the Rocket Lab boss is right. Although Virgin Galactic calls its passengers "astronauts", and they will ascend to an altitude of around 80km - high enough for six passengers to see the curvature of the Earth and experience five minutes of weightlessness during a 90 minute flight - it's still shy of the minimum 120km needed for a stable satellite orbit; a common definition of the edge of space (there's no formal definition).

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, which piggybacks on a sister craft, WhiteKnightTwo to a height of around 15km before blasting to an edge-of-space altitude of around 80km. Photo / Getty.
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, which piggybacks on a sister craft, WhiteKnightTwo to a height of around 15km before blasting to an edge-of-space altitude of around 80km. Photo / Getty.

But even if Virgin Galactic eventually reaches 400km (the altitude of the International Space Station), Beck still won't be buying a ticket.

Sheriff's deputies inspect the wreckage of the prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 in a desert north of Mojave, California that killed a co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Photo / Getty.
Sheriff's deputies inspect the wreckage of the prototype Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 in a desert north of Mojave, California that killed a co-pilot Michael Alsbury. Photo / Getty.

Does the Rocket Lab boss harbour any dreams of going into space himself?

"No, no I don't," he said.

"I understand the engineering too well."

Another Rocket Lab manager told the Herald that's a common sentiment among the company's engineers. "They're too familiar with the risks."

Tragically, Virgin Galactic has been made familiar with the danger, too. The startup, founded in 2004, suffered serious setbacks after a spaceship came apart during a test flight of the Mojave Desert in 2014, killing a co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold, who was able to eject at the last minute as the craft broke apart (SpaceShipTwo has since made two successful flights to the edge of space).

Despite Beck's dismissal, there are a number of Kiwis who have booked a ticket with Virgin Galactic.

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Space tourist in waiting: Auckland surgeon John Dunn wiith a Virgin Galactic aircraft. Photo / Supplied
Space tourist in waiting: Auckland surgeon John Dunn wiith a Virgin Galactic aircraft. Photo / Supplied

The first to sign up was Mark Rocket, a co-director of Rocket Lab in the early days (he was born Mark Stevens, but changed his surname as an homage to the industry he loves).

Rocket bought his ticket back in 2006.

A half-dozen other Kiwis have joined him in the queue, including entrepreneur Derek Handley, Auckland surgeon John Dunn, and Harcourts agent Jackie Maw - though Maw revealed this morning that she had sold her ticket back to Virgin Galactic after the Christchurch quakes.

And while Beck doesn't think Virgin Galactic is shooting high enough, Dunn hopes it will keep its ambitions closer to the ground.

"It's very pertinent these days, with climate change," he recently told the Herald.

Dunn thinks technological advances from the Virgin Galactic programme might 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."