Aerospace America - American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics
BY CAT HOFACKER|OCTOBER 2023
Per Wimmer, a founding astronaut at Virgin Galactic
When Danish financier Per Wimmer reserved his spot in 2004 aboard Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, he never imagined it would take 20 years for him to finally close in on his ride to the edge of space. As one of Virgin’s “founding astronauts” — the company’s term for its early cohort of passengers — Wimmer has followed the company’s progress closely, from the 2014 crash that killed test pilot Michael Alsbury to the first commercial flight in June. Virgin hasn’t announced a date for Wimmer’s flight, but he expects to fly in mid-2024, assuming the newly established cadence of one flight per month holds. In addition to fulfilling a decadeslong dream, Wimmer believes his pending flight and Virgin’s other early passenger flights mark the beginning of an expanded human presence in space. I reached him at his London office to find out what makes him so certain and what he’s doing to get ready as his flight approaches.
Q: You’re a self-described adventurer who’s bought multiple tickets for suborbital flights over the years. What are you hoping to get out of spaceflight that you haven’t gotten from your other adventures?
A: I’ve traveled to 84 countries. I’ve skied at 5,500 meters at one of the highest skiing stations in the world. I’ve lived with the Indians and in the Amazon, done all these sort of Indiana Jones things, and it’s really been exciting. But as an adventurer in the 21st century, the big dream was obviously to do the ultimate adventure: going to space. I came across it because one day I was talking to another adventurer friend of mine, and he said, “Per, have you heard space is opening up? Isn’t that amazing?” And within less than 48 hours, I’d written the first check to Space Adventures, which was the only game in town at that time. We’re talking back in 2000. The American Dennis Tito was already in preparations for his flight to the International Space Station. A year later in March 2001, I actually flew down on a private jet to Kazakhstan, and I was literally on the launch pad 15 minutes before Dennis took off. And then we went away these three miles together with his family, and we stood there and watched him take off and history being made. My flight was to be a suborbital one aboard a C-21 spaceplane, so fast forward a few years, I did a bit of training. I flew MiG-25 fighter jets out of Russia at Zukovsky Air Base. I also sat in the centrifuge in Star City, which is a 30-g centrifuge — one of the largest centrifuges in the world, actually. Also started doing zero g on the Illyushin II-76 aircraft, which for me is actually one of the best experiences in terms of zero g because it has so much volume and you can do so many things up and down. Fast forward to 2004 after SpaceShipOne’s amazing trip that won the X-Prize, and Virgin Galactic invited me for drinks. They invited me to become a founding astronaut with our program. And then same thing with Space Adventures: I said, “Yep, sounds great.” I wrote a check and thought nothing of it to be honest. I just said, “Give me a call when you’re ready.” Fast forward to 2006, I then get a phone call from XCOR Aerospace saying, “We know you’ve got several tickets to space already. Fancy another one?” And I said, “Yeah, why not?” I ended up becoming their very first astronaut, and I also invested a bit of money into the company itself. And then finally at a space conference once, I was also approached by what was called back then Rocketplane Kistler, which had the idea of converting a private jet into a rocket plane. I paid a partial deposit back then, but it ended up never going anywhere because they ran out of money.
Kistler filed for bankruptcy in 2010. — CH
Q: I recall that XCOR declared bankruptcy, but what happened to the Space Adventures flight?
A: The Russian C-21 ended up never flying because they didn’t get the funding. A few years ago, Space Adventures reached out and said, “Listen, it’s probably not going to happen with us.” So they actually refunded the payment minus a bit. So they’re effectively out. On the Galactic side, in 2007 we had an industrial accident on the ground. It was a very hot day out in Mojave. I think there was a leakage of nitrogen, and the whole thing blew up. Very, very tragic day, and we lost a bit of time because of the investigation into that.
The explosion at Mojave Air and Space Port was caused by a can of nitrous oxide. Killed were three employees of Scaled Composites, which was building Virgin’s spaceplanes. — CH
We were getting on the runway again in 2014, and I was starting to estimate I’ll probably fly in 2015. Then on Oct. 31, 2014, they had the very tragic test flight. The chief test pilot put on the brakes too early, which meant there was stress on the frame. The plane ended up breaking up, and the whole thing spun. The other test pilot ended getting out of the window and actually made it down. He got beaten up pretty badly, but he survived.
The plane, VSS Enterprise, broke apart seconds after being released from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. Pilot Michael Alsbury was killed and co-pilot Peter Siebold was severely injured. The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Alsbury had prematurely unlocked the “feather flap assembly,” which extended two tailbooms to increase drag during reentry. — CH
Q: That was a horrible day. Now almost 10 years later, Virgin and others are starting to conduct regular suborbital flights. Do you see this space tourism purely as a great adventure, as you mentioned, or is there a greater potential as the beginning of humans expanding our presence into space?
A: The whole space sector is at the dawn of a new era, a bit like private aviation was in the late 1920s, early ’30s. If we roll back and look at that, private aviation was effectively the reserve of government officials, test pilots and high net worth individuals who could afford this new thing that was moving very fast. A lot of the space stuff, particularly on the private side, is at that stage at the moment. It ain’t cheap, and the ones building the rockets successfully seem to be billionaires. Why? They have a historic passion for space; some of them have a tech background like Bezos or Elon; and they’re maybe a little bit geeky. Rockets are sort of the coolest thing for any kid who is interested in tech. But more generally, about $15 billion a year going into the private space sector — which is roughly the equivalent of the NASA budget — and that’s historically high.
The Biden administration in March requested $27.2 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2024. — CH
There’s a very big uptick of capital going in, both family office capital, semi-institutional capital, and obviously high net worth people who want to go because we have a passion for it. And that all drives things forward. And in particular the past five years, there’s been a massive uptick as a result of that, and that’s driven by demand. Interestingly, the much, much bigger market is the satellite market, but from a media point of view, the human side and the astronaut side of things is always the most exciting because you’ve got live blood and flesh. It’s more exciting than a little box with some kit in it. So we are definitely at the dawn of a new era. And when private enterprise gets involved, you get innovation, you get capital, you get all these things that other industries have experienced: You get competition. There’ll be a low-cost carrier, there’ll be a high-end with lots of different bells and whistles, but all of them will end up creating innovation that not only is very helpful for space and the space sector but also very helpful for stuff on Earth, whether it’s cheaper telecom access via the satellites or pharmaceutical trials that are better done in zero g. We may not think about it as such, but they are hugely important, and they are in part funded by people like myself. We want to have the ultimate adventure of going into space, and indirectly, we end up funding some of that R&D because there’s that revenue attached to it. This is going to go far and will eventually take us to Mars, I have no doubt.
Q: These companies might have provided access to space, but there’s still a lot to do to ensure humans can actually survive there, like overcoming radiation and learning to live in zero g. How does suborbital move the needle forward in that sense?
A: I think all parts of the food chains are important. The challenge with suborbital in terms of the bigger picture and the farther, longer-distance missions is that these flights tend to go up and then come down again. It’s still amazing, and it’s fantastic, but there’s a limit to how much you can actually do. If you talk to some of the biotech people, they do need a little bit more time to actually do their testing, so having the ISS is incredibly useful as a lab because you can stay there for six months at a time. Eventually, it’s going to be the moon, where you can learn how to potentially extract water from the South Pole. If you can separate the H2O out into oxygen, that means you can get breathing stuff, and hydrogen means there’s rocket fuel. So if you can create a platform for there, it would make life easier because you don’t have to carry all that fuel and oxygen up there. The problem with living on Mars is that most of the atmosphere is carbon dioxide, so you might as well put your head in the exhaust pipe of a car. Last time I checked, people die by doing that. The second issue is there’s no ozone layer on Mars. So not an easy place to go, but can we go there? Yeah, I think we will eventually have rockets that can take us there.
Q: Do you feel like you have a good idea of what to expect for your Virgin Galactic flight, given you’ve been preparing so long?
A: I’m ready to be surprised, but I do think I have a pretty good insight into it. First and foremost, I’ve been on this for 23 years. It’s been an interesting and highly unexpected long timeline. I’ve managed to do lots and lots of training in the meantime in various places in America, in Europe, in Russia. I’ve had a chance to talk and become friends with some Apollo astronauts, which has been amazing. In December last year, I flew zero gravity with Charlie Duke [Apollo 16 astronaut and capsule communicator for Apollo 11]. I remember distinctly asking what was the best advice he would give me as a person going into space. And he very directly said, “Look out the goddamn window. Don’t worry about being weightless. You can do that in all these other places and stuff and take pictures of that. Look at the curvature of Earth.” So yeah, I’ll do just that. That’s a good advice.
Q: You’ve written in your autobiography that your fighter jet training has already given you a taste of the Overview Effect. I’m always curious about its effects, so what changes has it already prompted you to make in your life?
A: Having talked to so many astronauts, it’s quite clear when they come back to planet Earth, they’re changed and they realize how special the Earth is. You have all these perfect conditions for life, and you realize when you go a little bit farther out and take the bigger picture that it ain’t so in many other places. Because I’ve met so many astronauts, because I’ve done my training and because I’m such a space enthusiast, I am probably a little bit more up the curve than most before they do a spaceflight. And therefore, I am particularly conscious about the fragility, the urgency about protecting this beautiful place we call home and the impact of climate change. Sadly, I do anticipate you’ll see more of these extreme weather events that we’re experiencing at the moment, whether it’s the huge flooding in Libya where 5,000 people have died or all these wildfires we’ve seen this summer. The Earth is heating up, and we’re just not getting that fast enough. So yes, I’m very conscious about that, but when I go to space, I’ll probably become even more conscious about it, like all astronauts seem to do.
After the interview, I asked Wimmer how this awakening has affected how he invests and whether he believes in environmental, sustainability and governance as determinants. He told me via email that the Overview Effect “partly induced me to write the book The Green Bubble, highlighting that for green energy to be truly sustainable it must be commercially sustainable. The activities of Wimmer Financial have always included renewables since day one so no big change there over time. In terms of ESG rankings, I am a bit skeptical about the amount of ‘green washing’ taking place. These days, one cannot open an investor presentation without there being several slides on ESG and sometimes the use of it feels a bit stretched and forced. There is a real need for a more objective measurement and I am not convinced that the current ESG ranking system is the doing the job well. More work in this field is needed.” — CH
Q: How has the Virgin Galactic training compared to what you’ve done in Russia?
A: The training has been more or less constant, and the same in the sense that it essentially comprises centrifuge training, where you spin around faster and faster and faster. In Russia, I was in the big Star City centrifuge, and I’ve trained in the private centrifuge in the U.S. in Philadelphia. Also, you get a lot of exposure to various g forces, and also the weightlessness training that we talked about a minute ago where you experience weightlessness. You learn about how you got to be a little bit careful about not moving around too much in the beginning, because otherwise you can get nauseous and sick potentially. These are absolutely key things, in addition to medical test and checking and how your body reacts. And yes, I’ve had plenty of time to practice, so I do feel I’m super ready to go. I’ve been waiting for these rockets to be finished for ages, and good news is they now are finished and they now are flying. I would have never imagined it would take 20 years before I got to fly, but hey, good things take time sometimes.
Q: Because of the long delay, how frequently has Virgin been in contact with you and the other passengers over the years? Do you get updates about potential delays or even accidents before the public?
A: When I signed up in 2004, I did not realize how long it’s going to take, but also did not realize what else was secretly in the package. Over the years, I’ve had so many absolutely amazing experiences, events, other things I’ve been to or invited to as a result, met some incredible people in the astronaut corps. And I’ve always said, even if the flight ended up getting canceled, it’s been an absolute blast all the way. Virgin Galactic in particular has been very good in keeping us posted but also having — particularly for the founding group of astronauts, because we are the first group of paying customers — many gatherings, sessions, invites, experiences, all sorts of things all the way along. That in itself has been amazing and really very valuable, let alone the network. The thing I’m more nervous about is whether those will end once we go up and all these wonderful times we’ve had together with this little family will be over. In more recent years, Galactic is a publicly listed company, so now obviously a lot of information does translate pretty easily to the public. And on those occasions where we’ve had accidents — I mean, we all know it’s not a risk-free experience. But if you ask anybody who has been lost along the way, “What would be the best thing to do?” they would say, “Continue the mission.” I would feel the same thing. I mean, God forbid, I hope nothing’s going to happen, but if it did, I would say, “Don’t stop.” That is how we are as humans; that’s how we’ve progressed as a species. We want to learn. We have an inner drive that needs to learn, that needs to do more, needs to push the boundaries, and that’s why we are so advanced as a species. That’s never going to stop, and it shouldn’t.
Q: It seems like that frequent contact goes a long way toward building your trust and confidence in Virgin and its technology.
A: It is true. And to be fair to them, they have done a lot to keep it going. If you think about it as a commercial proposition: It’s one thing to go into a shop and put down money to buy a fancy car or something and have to wait for nine months. But if you put down your money almost 20 years ago, that’s a long waiting time. But because they’ve kept us in the loop, we know what’s going on. We know it’s hard. Just like JFK said, “We choose to go to the moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” We want to go as soon as possible, of course, but we’d rather go safely instead of cutting corners.
Q: There are mixed opinions on whether the long-running moratorium preventing Congress from regulating space tourism should be extended. What are your thoughts?
A: As a passenger and also as a space enthusiast, I would say FAA has been pretty pragmatic. They’re there to protect people on the ground, not necessarily us, because we sign informed consents and we know what we do is a little bit more dangerous than just walking down the street. They’ve actually been pretty good and been willing to learn, to listen to industry and doing the right balance between protecting, having the right safety standards and also allowing things to advance. But because it’s a new sector, especially in the beginning, it wasn’t easy. I mean, how do you put down the rules and the restrictions and the requirements? I’m sure some of the rocket builders would say it needs to be a little bit more flexible. But then again, if you have too much flexibility — I mean, look what happened to that OceanGate submarine, which was noncertified because you don’t need to be certified to operate in international waters.
OceanGate has taken down all posts on its website, but multiple media reports cite the company describing its Titanic submarine as an “experimental submersible vessel that has not been approved or certified by any regulatory body.” — CH
So I think FAA has put in good restrictions, good programs and worked closely with industry. And industry also wants it to be safe, because if there is an accident, it will affect everybody. It’s not just going to affect one company. It is genuinely in everybody’s interest to have as safe flights as possible.
Q: It seems like you’re saying the current approach is working for now, but if this really is going to grow into a fully fledged market, more regulation is required in the future.
A: Yes. We have a lot more knowledge; we have a lot more suppliers; we have a lot more information; we have done a lot more testing. Everybody’s a lot more educated today. So therefore, we are getting to a point where FAA should be able to put down some boundaries and say, “This is what’s required, and this is OK, and you have a bit of latitude here.” It ought to be a bit easier today, certainly compared to, say, 20 years ago when we all started. We do need regulation. It’s not like a financial investment that goes wrong and you lose a bit of money. If the thing blows up, you lose your life. It’s pretty serious.
Q: Regarding the size of the market, I’ve heard some opinions that private tourists will be a small share of customers compared to government astronauts, particularly countries that aren’t able to fly today to ISS. What do you think?
A: I think you’re right in that statement, in particular when you look at the absolute dollar amounts. Yes, the suborbital market will be expanding. There’ll be more people going to space, which is a delightful thing, but there is a limit to how much you can charge. Galactic charges $450,000. It’ll probably come down in time, but look at the price of orbital flights and the market for that, and then at the potential contracts that NASA can dish out. SpaceX has famously picked up multibillion-dollar contracts with them. But you start to enter into a situation where the customer, NASA, has got a lot of firepower, and it makes sense for them to outsource so they can focus on the more difficult, deeper space, rather than being the taxi driver, i.e., the transporter. And then you have other governments in particular that might want to hitch a ride. Because a lot of this space activity going farther away is exploratory and non-revenue generating, that part is going to need a lot of government funding. Putting satellites up that can do clever things for farming, for shipping, for tailored communications — the stuff that’s probably the most commercial part of it, and that’s where private enterprise will show up. But the stuff that’s farther out, it doesn’t really have a revenue. That will definitely be subsidy driven or government driven or billionaire driven, because that’s what they want to do.
Q: Given your long interest in spaceflight, would you buy tickets for other suborbital flights or rides to these future commercial space stations?
A: Absolutely, and I’m following them with great interest. I want more space in general, and I want more people to go into space. I want it to be cheaper so more people can access it. And on a personal note, I want to go up more and stay longer and go farther out. My quest for space is eternal. I’ll keep going as long as I can.