After witnessing the dual tragedies of the Antares rocket explosion Oct. 28 and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash Oct. 31, some might be put off by the idea of space tourism.
In fact, after the SpaceShipTwo crash, in which one test pilot, Michael Alsbury, died and test pilot Peter Siebold was severely injured after falling 10 miles to earth, Virgin Galactic issued a statement indicating less than 3 percent of the 700 passengers booked to fly on Virgin Galactic’s maiden voyages requested a refund.
Ken Baxter, the first person to buy a Virgin Galactic ticket in 2005, was not among them.
Baxter, a philanthropist, entrepreneur and founding owner of Performance Marketing America, is also known as “Rocket Man” and couldn’t be more excited to experience zero gravity and view the earth from above.
Born in 1949, Baxter grew up enthralled by the space race that took place during the ’60s.
“Back when the Mercury flights were happening, when Russia sent the first guy around up in space and we were chasing them, I watched every flight when I was a kid,” Baxter said.
“I watched Gemini and Apollo just religiously. I’ve always been fascinated by space travel.”
After many years, traveling to space himself seemed like a far-away dream. And then Baxter saw a “60 Minutes” episode in 2004 that changed his life.
“I was watching ‘60 minutes,’ and the announcer said that Richard Branson contracted the company that won the X Prize (for being the first private venture to launch the same manned craft into space twice in two weeks). I heard Branson wanted them to make ships for space tourism for a new company called Virgin Galactic.”
The next day, Baxter couldn’t resist taking the opportunity.
“I had my assistant call Virgin Atlantic in the morning,” Baxter said. “Richard Branson called me back on his cell phone.”
When Virgin Galactic was ready to begin selling tickets in 2005, Baxter was the first in line.
He initially purchased the ticket for $200,000, and it was a big buy at the time.
“It was a big deal then, and my wife wasn’t very happy when I told her we didn’t have any money,” Baxter said. “In 2004, we were still struggling. In ’05 and ’06, business boomed and we were doing really well before the Recession.”
In the years since, Baxter has been offered and refused more than $1 million for his seat.
He’s also become well-acquainted with Sir Richard Branson, whom he notes is “genuine, sincere and very friendly.”
On the morning of Oct. 31, Baxter and other planned SpaceShipTwo passengers were notified that it was going to be a spectacular day for Virgin Galactic.
When news of the plane breaking up mid-air came, it was a sobering moment for many.
“My wife read the bad news to me,” Baxter said. “I was in shock. I’m still in shock, and still feel pain for those pilots.”
The NTSB is still investigating the cause of the crash, and a full report could take months.
Baxter said though it was a big letdown, he was relieved to hear initial reports that the feathering and breaking up of the plane may have been partially caused by pilot error.
A statement on the Virgin Galactic website says: “The NTSB indicated that the lock/unlock lever was pulled prematurely based on recorded speed at the time, and they have suggested that subsequent aerodynamic forces then deployed the feathering mechanism, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the wings and vehicle.”
Baxter has never had a doubt that he will eventually go, but acknowledges that friends and family may have different thoughts.
“I think they’re nervous. This has changed a lot of people’s opinions. It was a bad week for space programs,” Baxter said.
As far as fellow travelers that have requested a refund, Baxter emphasized that refunds have always been an option.
“I’ve met many of my fellow passengers; in the founder days we knew everybody. Now there’s near 700 booked. The ticket has always been refundable,” Baxter said.
When it comes to an anticipated flight date, Baxter is confident the time will come sooner rather than later.
The second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Voyager, is reported to be more than 60 percent complete, with tests planned for Spring 2015.
“I’m undaunted. I think next year is a good time to aim for,” Baxter said.
“I’m going to be the first one up, and I want to tell you all about it as soon as I get down.”