Would you pay $200,000 for a ticket to space? This man did

Virgin Galactic is close to taking paying customers on a trip to the stars. We spoke to one of its ‘Future Astronauts’, Per Wimmer…

BY CHARLIE BURTON – Thursday 13 June 2019

Per Wimmer is likely to be one of the first 700 people in the history of humanity to go to space. The former Goldman Sachs executive director from Denmark, who now owns the international corporate financial advisory firm Wimmer Financial, has paid $200,000 up front for a ticket with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (today the price is $250,000). The company is now testing its spaceship in space, and Branson recently told GQ that he hopes to take the trip himself later this year – with customers going up in the first half of the year after. As blast-off gets closer, we spoke to Wimmer about his hopes and fears for the big day…

GQ: Virgin Galactic approached you 15 years ago, right at the outset, because you had previously bought a ticket with another space tourism company called Space Adventures. How long did it take Galactic to convince you to sign up?

Per Wimmer: Stephen [Attenborough, commercial director of Virgin Galactic] contacted me and asked if I had time for a drink. And of course I had time for a drink. So we sit down, had a wonderful chat. And the upshot of it was that he offered me the chance to become a founding astronaut with Galactic. And I accepted. I wrote him a cheque. I could afford it, because of my Goldman time. I had no doubt about it. I was like, go, go, go.

When you bought that ticket, what was the reaction among your family and friends?

The inner circle – close friends, parents, my sister – were on the one hand a little bit excited about it, but they were certainly also nervous about it: “Sounds dangerous.” Once you go a little bit further out than that inner circle – acquaintances or people you just met for the first time – almost without an exception it is like, “That is so exciting. That is fascinating. That’s a big dream. That’s wonderful. Oh, good luck.”

Per Wimmer poses with a model of Virgin Galactic’s spaceship

Do you know what number you are in the queue to ride on the spaceship?

Not yet. From number 101 onwards, they have numbers. But for the first batch, the first 100 [of which Wimmer is one] are randomly assigned. I mean, there are some who would prefer not to be on the early flights…

Indeed. Are you hoping for a number nearer one or nearer a hundred?

Nearer one. Absolutely.

So what’s the fundamental appeal of going into space for you – is it the thrill or something else?

It’s a couple of things, actually. Number one, it’s the adventure. As a Danish citizen, I’ll be the first private Dane in space. Now, I have subsequently discovered an enormous amount of other things that I did not expect when I wrote the first cheque. And those include the amazing community – the astronaut community is really fantastic. They’re great entrepreneurs, or artists, or whatever they’ve done in their space – obviously they’ve been successful enough to afford [the ticket]. But also beyond that: they’re just genuinely nice people who are actually remarkably down to earth. Secondly, there have been a lot of experiences that have come with it. I’ve been to Necker Island a number of times. I’m reasonably close to some of the Branson family. I have a huge amount respect for, in particular, Richard. His vision, but also him as a person.

Per Wimmer with Sir Richard Branson

What specifically are you most looking forward to about your flight?

First and foremost, the most beautiful view on earth. I happen to know some of the Apollo astronauts and happen to be friends with one of them, Buzz Aldrin. One of the things they always say is that, “It took us going to the moon to discover the earth.” I think also it’s probably going to be a journey inside as well. I think it’s going to raise questions about, you know, what’s life all about? That’s what I suspect, because that’s what some of the Apollo guys have told me.

When the Virgin Galactic accident happened in 2014, did you think about not going?

That accident has a lot of tragedy attached to me personally. My dad was sick; he had cancer. I flew to Denmark on the Monday. My dad died on the Tuesday. So it was a horrible, horrible week. It was probably the worst week of my life, to be honest. On the Wednesday, there was a rocket that exploded with some satellite equipment in the US. So I go on Danish television and explain about what happened to that rocket on that mission and why that exploded. On the Friday, we have my dad’s funeral. I was very close to my dad and it was it was so draining and tragic. And then I went home to our summer house with my mum and we put our feet up and said, “Let’s just relax.” Then I get a phone call from the Danish equivalent of ITV, asking me for comments about the rocket explosion. And I was like, “Sure, but you’re a bit late with the news. That was on Wednesday.” “No, no, no – the Galactic one.” I go, “What?” because I’d been completely out of the loop, having a funeral. I look it up. It’s like, “Oh, Jesus.” I got that news the same day as my dad’s funeral. It was hard for me, personally, to digest in the following days and weeks. But one thing that didn’t change in my mind – I mean, after that emotional shock to the system – was that the mission must go on. I really hoped that Richard would not do the wrong thing of stopping the mission. I know he considered it. The best way to honour those who have died or suffered because of all those injuries is to honour their sacrifice. To keep on. And that’s what they would have wanted.

The bespoke watch that Per Wimmer has designed for his spaceflight

Do you not worry about it going wrong when you’re on it?

So here’s my thoughts on risks, because I’m not stupid. I do look at risk. I’m OK with, say, lower single-digit percentages, [that] type of risk. If you compare, in my view, the risk profile of flying Galactic, it’s probably better or, at worse, similar to the early days of aviation in the late Twenties and Thirties. In my view, it is lower single digits. For me, if an adventure, more generically, presents itself with a double-digit risk profile, I’m reluctant to participate. I don’t think that this is the case here. It is a risk worth taking.

If, heaven forbid, something did go wrong, you’re at peace with the idea that that’s an OK way to go?

There are worse ways to go. I mean, you would go out with a big bang!

Once the flight is over, would you want to go to space again?

I certainly wouldn’t mind flying [Jeff Bezos’] Blue Origin. But they’re not selling tickets, so you can’t even buy a ticket. I would love to fly Galactic again. I’d love to fly on all the rockets. My mission would be to go further and further out and ultimately, if I could, in my lifetime, I’d love to plant the Danish flag on the moon.