Per Wimmer: Denmark's first man in space

July 25th, 2009

When you’ve made your millions, earned four Masters Degrees, travelled to more than 50 countries and set up your own investment bank (all while still in your 30s), your average run-of-the-mill challenges may no longer suffice.

So, Per Wimmer is setting his sights higher, about 100km higher to be precise-in space. Wimmer is a 39-year-old, investment banker, who is set to become the first Dane and only the second Scandinavian to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. He has so far invested in the region of $1 million of his own money and a significant amount of time over the last seven years in pursuing his dream. No date has yet been set for this adventure, as there is still much testing of man and spacecraft to be done, but Wimmer himself is pretty much ready for the trip of a lifetime. And just to make sure he really does fulfil his dream of travelling into space, he has signed up and paid for no less than three separate journeys into the heavens.

The new space race

The idea of going into space was hatched back in 2000 when Wimmer was discussing exciting travel destinations with a friend. “I’m an adventurer, and this person asked if I had heard that it was possible to go into space, which I hadn’t,” he says. “Within 48 hours of that conversation I had written the first cheque, and it snowballed from there.”

Space tourism – some are dismissive of the term and call it “private space exploration”- began in 2001 when American Dennis Tito paid a reported $20 million for seven days aboard the International Space Station (ISS). In the seven years since, only four other people have followed him.

But now a new race is on to start regular, commercial flights into space – 100km above the Earth is the internationally-defined boundary – with several companies at various stages of preparations to make the next great step for tourism.

Wimmer is hoping that his voyages will take place sometime between 2009 and 2010. One will be with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aboard SpaceShipTwo, which will carry six passengers and two pilots to an altitude of 110km. Branson and some members of his family will be on the first trip. Wimmer, as one of its 100 “Founders”, is hoping to leave the Earth’s atmosphere shortly thereafter on one of the subsequent flights at a cost of $200,000.

Trip number two is a suborbital journey with Space Adventures, the company which has taken all five space tourists to the ISS to date and whose Explorer “spaceplane” has been developed alongside the Russian Federal Space Agency. He is not allowed to talk about his secretive, third mission.

High achiever

So, who is Wimmer? What you might call a high achiever, he was top of his class at school in his hometown of Slagelse, about 100km from Copenhagen and went on to pass the Baccalaureate in France in double-quick time, having skipped the first year and done the second and third year simultaneously (the failure rate among native-speaking French students is 48 per cent!). Next came a Law degree and then a Masters in Law from the University of Copenhagen; a Master of Laws (LLM) from the University of London; an internship at the United Nations in Geneva; an M.A. in European Political Science from the College of Europe in Bruges; and a junior post in the cabinet of the Vice-President of the European Union. 

Wimmer then took a few months off to write a book (in French) about the future development of Europe, before being offered a place at Harvard to do a Masters in Public Administration (MPA). He travelled the world for six months halfway through the two-year programme, and on completion of his MPA whittled the mountain of job offers he received down to two: one from top investment bank Goldman Sachs, and one from Bill Clinton, which would have made him the only foreigner on the prestigious Presidential Management Intern Programme. Decisions, decisions. He chose Wall Street over the White House and so began a glittering career in investment banking.

It is hard not to feel just a little inferior in the presence of such accomplishment – which, it must be said, he carries off without arrogance. The fact that he has a somewhat noble or perhaps even regal look, complemented by a perfectly waved fringe, adds to the impression of ascendancy. Thus, in an attempt to find a chink in the armour, the question has to be asked: has Wimmer ever failed at anything? He shifts in his seat, blushes slightly and answers almost apologetically, no, he hasn’t. “About 90 per cent is hard work and determination, and the rest is probably good luck,” he says, as if trying to prove he is not Superman. “You need to have a bit of good luck now and then, and I have had that. If I look back there are probably a few days I would change, but not a lot of them.”

Seasoned observers of Scandinavia will know that such success and drive, being the tallest poppy in the field, but still stretching higher, is often frowned upon. According to Jante Law (Jantelagen in Swedish, Janteloven in Danish) you shouldn’t think you are special or better than anyone else. Someone with Wimmer’s CV and ambition should, by Scandinavian rights, be a favourite target for hostility. But, he says, he has been given a fair bit of slack. “The first reason is I am already a bit of an oddball, as I have already moved abroad, and why would anyone want to do that?” he says. “Second, although Jante Law is still prevalent in Denmark, when it comes to the whole space thing, for some reason it’s OK. I’m not too sure why. Maybe, because it is so fascinating and different and literally out of this world. Or maybe, because we are all part of it. When I go up there it is not just me, but Denmark has an astronaut. So it is ‘us’, and that means I can get away with a lot of things.”

Been there, done that

He has the money and time; he is his own boss – he launched Wimmer Financial on October 4th last year, the 50th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch – and is not currently in a relationship, so there is no one to try to talk him out of it.  But why invest what for most mortals is crazy money in an adventure – or three – which are, let’s face it, fairly high risk and which will last for just a few hours from lift-off to landing?

Wimmer breaks it down into three, what he calls, “motivational factors”. The first is an interest in space picked up from an inspirational physics teacher back home in Slagelse. The second is wanderlust. “If you look at my background on the travelling side, I do like to get out there, be as pioneering as possible. Unfortunately Earth is pretty much explored. We have been everywhere – there is a Coca-Cola dispenser pretty much everywhere. And that takes a bit of the fun away for me. As human beings we have only travelled in two dimensions, and now the third dimension is starting to open up, and I very much want to be part of that. For me that is the ultimate trip.”

The third factor behind his decision to go to space is his “entrepreneurial” spirit. “I am an entrepreneur – I have started my own bank. The opening up of space to people like you and me is a new thing. It attracts a lot of people who think like me. That is a huge side benefit because I get to work with some brilliant, inspiring people who have some crazy, wacko ideas.”

Of course, there are probably thousands of people around the world who are adventurous, like taking risks and are interested in space, but they have not signed up for three space trips. So what makes Wimmer different?  First, he says, there are the formal criteria that a space tourist must fulfil. You have to been in good health with no heart or back problems, and, obviously the big one – you need deep pockets. That rules out a whole lot of wannabes. Then, there is the personal side of it. “I think the key, differentiating factor is that when I put something into my head, I do it,” he says. “My decision-making goes like this: I throw a lot of balls up into the air, pull some of them down and consider the pros and cons. And once the line is drawn there is no going back, it is just execution, execution, execution,” he says, accompanying the words with a chopping motion with his hands, revealing some of the attitude that helped him in the financial world. “I guess that is one thing that separates me from the rest and that is why I am doing it now as one of the first.”

Frighteningly real

Getting into space has become something of a career in itself, with Wimmer putting the equivalent of a third to a half of a normal job’s working hours into the project over the past seven years. This includes giving presentations on his project, speaking at schools, and media calls, such as the ten days he spent with Danish TV and four days with Virgin Galactic in New York in January. And then, of course, there is the training itself.

Much of it involves teaching the body how to deal with the forces put on it while trying to escape the Earth’s atmosphere, or re-enter it. This has meant acrobatics in a MiG 25 jet fighter at speeds of Mach 3, and rides on the world’s biggest centrifuge, at Star City in Russia, pulling 6G. “F16 pilots need to handle 7.5G, and humans die after 12,” explains Wimmer. Recent training with Virgin has included what sounds like the ultimate video game: a simulated launch of SpaceShipTwo in a centrifuge with what is effectively a mini-IMAX screen showing the cabin and the view from the window. “You become a virtual astronaut, but it feels frighteningly real,” says Wimmer. “It’s exciting, thrilling, exhausting.”

From his vantage point half within the space industry and half in the “real” world, Wimmer believes that we are on the threshold of a new era of private space travel. “There is a mini-revolution taking place that many people are not aware of,” he says. “This is going to be big. This is going to be comparable to the late 20s early 30s, when the private aviation industry took off. Back then, aviation was just for government officials and very high-worth people. Later, normal people got this possibility of travelling by air. And look at where we are now with EasyJet and Ryan Air. I’m not saying we will get down to the same price levels as that, but we are transforming what is happening. That whole revolution is yet to come, but it will come.”

Wimmer recently received a request to speak in Spain at the conference of a major electronics manufacturer, which he says shows that the interest in what he is doing goes beyond national boundaries, beyond the Danish interest in him just because he will be the first person from that small country to go into space. “So, it is clearly a global story,” he says. “People are fascinated by this. This is the future. If you want to illustrate something with the future, then space is now sexy again. I am very glad we are at that point where we are able to motivate and excite people with renewed interest in space. This is what people want to read about.”

The big picture

Besides the thrill of physically leaving the Earth’s atmosphere – if only for about half an hour – Wimmer is expecting his “ultimate trip” to involve the sort of deep, transcendental experience that professional astronauts have spoken of after returning from space. “It is possible that it will be a philosophical internal trip if it is quiet enough for that. We will be transported so far away from friends, family, professional and private surroundings that maybe it will give thought to life and how insignificant the stuff we are running around doing on Earth actually is, because you are really seeing the big perspective for once, and truly the big perspective. So, there will hopefully be a bit of time to reflect, and by that time it will probably be time to go back home again.”

But what he hopes he will be able to avoid – and he is already planning ways to do so – is the sort of crash-landings other astronauts have experienced after reaching the absolute pinnacle of their professional and private lives. He gives as one of his biggest role models Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon and whom he knows personally. Aldrin went through personal crises and became an alcoholic after the initial hullabaloo over his great achievement had died down.

“It’s sad that he had that big fall, but it is certainly a lesson for the rest of us,” says Wimmer. “It shows that it is important for us to have something to land on once we come back from these high highs. These are emotionally very high highs we are talking about, where you transport yourself out to a place where few have been before and it seems to have a big impact on people. So, I have a few things in the drawer at the moment that I can land on and that can fill out the gaps over the years to come.”

And something else that should help him keep his chin up should there come some great post-space downer after his return to Earth is the fact that his greatest challenge is yet to come, still a few decades and inevitably several million dollars in the future. Per Wimmer’s ultimate goal in life is to plant the Danish flag on the moon. Do you doubt he’ll succeed?

Per Wimmer’s ‘Seven Fundamental Values’

1) Allow yourself to be inspired. Think out of the box

2) Follow your heart and passion. Have fun

3) Focus and execution

4) Time discipline: be conscious about time allocation

5) Teamwork: the sum of the parts is greater than the individual parts alone

6) Take calculated risks: assess risks/rewards

7) Inspire others, especially children, and encourage them to live their dreams

About Per

Name:  Per Wimmer

Born: 1968 in Slagelse, Denmark

Family: single

Career:  financier, astronaut, adventurer and motivational speaker

Lives in: London

Spends his down time: with friends and watching good movies

Would rather die than:  “not be able to live out my dreams.”