Virgin Galactic Astronaut: My 20-Year Journey of Getting Ready for Space Travel

Holding spaceflight tickets with three companies since 2001, Per Wimmer is every step along the way of the development of modern commercial space travel.

A view of planet Earth from space. NASA

At 9:28 a.m. Mountain Time on October 6, a Virgin Galactic (SPCE) VSS Unity spaceship was released from its mothership aircraft, VMS Eve, at more than 44,000 feet (8.3 miles) above Earth. The mission, “Galactic 04,” was Virgin Galactic’s fourth commercial flight. The VSS Unity fired up its engine for a 60-second blast, speeding up to Mach 2.95 (nearly three times the speed of sound), and soared into space at the peak altitude of 54 miles. On board were three private astronauts: Ron Rosano, an American; Trevor Beattie, a Brit; and Namira Salim, who is from Pakistan. I know all of them because, like me, they are part of the cadre of Virgin Galactic Founding Astronauts, the first people to commit to the project by buying tickets back in the days when commercial spaceflight, though having been proven feasible, was far from a reality. 

We have met many times, on space training sessions and at Virgin Galactic events. We all drew lots to decide who would be on which flight once commercial flights of VSS Unity began, in June this year: I expect to go into space on Galactic 10, probably in the spring of next year. 

I have waited more than 20 years to travel into space. I bought my first ticket in 2001, from Space Adventures, the first company to offer private spaceflight aboard Russian Soyuz rockets to the International Space Station (ISS). I travelled to Russia with Space Adventures in the same year to do training on supersonic MiG-25 fighter jets, which can reach the maximum speed of around Mach 3. The purpose was to experience the G-forces that come with very high acceleration. MiG-25 is also capable of reaching very high altitudes, typically around 80,000 feet (15 miles). At that kind of altitude, the curvature of Earth below is clearly visible, as is the blackness of space above the cockpit. It was an amazing experience.

Also in 2001, the world’s first private astronaut, American hedge fund billionaire Dennis Tito, flew into space with Space Adventures and spent a week on the ISS. I got to stand on the launch pad with Tito’s family as he boarded the rocket to wave him goodbye—an arrangement unthinkable with NASA. (We did get to retire to a safe distance of around three miles away to witness the actual launch!)

Then, in 2004, a newly designed spacecraft called SpaceShipOne claimed the Ansari X Prize, a privately funded prize to reward the first commercially developed, reusable crewed spacecraft capable of flying into space twice within two weeks. On the day SpaceShipOne made its second trip to space, Sir Richard Branson announced the launch of Virgin Galactic, a company offering commercial spaceflight using a new spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo. I bought a ticket and became one of the company’s “Founding Astronauts.”

Actually getting into space has been a longer road than any of us could have expected. In 2007, the explosion of a fuel tank at the spaceport in the Mojave desert in California where Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo was being built killed three people and injured three others. The tragic in-flight breakup in 2014 of VSS Enterprise, a successor to SpaceShipTwo, killed a test pilot and badly injured another, setting the project back many years. A subsequent investigation found that the unique feathering system that acted as a break to slow the spacecraft as it entered Earth’s atmosphere had been deployed too early. 

Developing successful spacecraft is difficult and dangerous. And I always knew that delivering private flights to space would be a difficult road for these pioneering companies and that success was not guaranteed.

I bought a third ticket to space from a company called XCOR, which was developing a kind of rocket plane for suborbital flight. XCOR eventually went bust. Space Adventures continues to offer private trips to the ISS and plans on taking paying passengers to the Moon. But the company’s suborbital program never materialised. 

Space travel is becoming more and more affordable

A flight into space is expensive, and a trip to the ISS (or to the Moon) is seriously expensive. It is said that Tito paid $20 million for his historic trip—but he was said to be worth around $300 million at the time of the launch and now around $1 billion, so I guess all things are relative!

Now, thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of many people, private space travel is becoming more and more affordable and available. At the time of writing, a total of only 663 people have ever travelled into space. Next month’s Virgin Galactic flight will raise this number to 666. I expect this figure to double in the next few years, as Virgin Galactic launches more flights and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch private astronauts with their rockets. 

In 2021, a special flight was commissioned by billionaire Jared Isaacson as part of a charity drive to support a children’s hospital in Tennessee. The flight orbited Earth in an exceptionally high orbit for three days, making it the first orbital spaceflight by private citizens. Isaacson now has plans for three more SpaceX flights, pushing the boundaries of private space travel with each. A private company called Axiom Space also runs private missions to the ISS and is committed to reimagining how humans can live and work in space. 

No one knows exactly what the future of commercial space exploration will look like, but it’s estimated that total private investment in space is currently around $15 billion a year, which is of the same order as NASA’s budget in the early 1980s. I believe it is likely that the level of private investment will soon equal and even surpass NASA budgets. 

I own and run a boutique investment bank based in Mayfair, London, and we see a lot of space-related proposals, probably because of my known interest in space. Most of them over the past decade or so have been very fanciful, but they are becoming far more serious and potentially fundable. 

Preparing for the “Overview Effect” 

Seeing Earth from space has such a dramatic effect on people that it has been given its own term: “the Overview Effect.” To see the whole Earth floating beneath you in space is the most powerful reminder of the fragility and preciousness of our planet. It reminds us of our duty to protect and nurture our environment.

I once carried out a world-record-breaking tandem skydive from above Mount Everest, jumping out of a plane at around 30,000 feet (Everest itself is 29,030 feet) and landing at the drop zone near the Everest Base Camp. When I landed, I felt intoxicated. I felt like a bottle of champagne that had been shaken vigorously. The pressure had been building and building, driven by adrenaline and a very real dose of fear. And when my feet hit the ground, the pressure was suddenly released, leading to an overwhelming burst of joy and happiness. I think that feeling of joy combined with the sense of awe and humility produced by the Overview Effect will be an experience like no other. 

As the countdown to my flight into space gathers pace, it’s hard to contain my excitement. I have already done the most important prep work, from various sessions of centrifuge training designed to help me cope with the G-forces during ascent to weightlessness training that mimicked the brief zero gravity I would experience before re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. The final training before the actual flight will focus on safety measures and practical issues such as navigating my way back to my seats in a weightless environment. I will never forget the advice I got from Charlie Duke, the Lunar Module pilot of Apollo 16 who walked on the moon in 1972. We met during a weightlessness training program on a Boeing 727 in December 2022 and he said to me, “Don’t forget to look out the goddamn window!” 

Per Wimmer is a Virgin Galactic Founding Astronaut and has a ticket on a Virgin Galactic flight next year. Wimmer’s first auto biography “The Sky Is No Limit” is available now.