Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald | 17 February 2007
By Alex May
Wilson da Silva is the editor and creator of COSMOS, a science magazine backed by Dr Alan Finkel. Finkel, the millionaire founder of Axon Instruments, has spent US$400,000 buying tickets for da Silva and himself in the hope of being the first Australian space tourists to fly on Virgin Galactic in 2008.
Wilson: “I had no more expected to go into space than be Secretary-General of the United Nations. I still have to tell myself ‘I’m going into space’ just to make it real.
Alan is a big fan of the Apollo missions and the short version of a very long story is that he bought himself a ticket to get on board the first commercial space flights. He rang me at some hour of the night on my mobile and said, ‘What do you think of the technology, is it safe. Do you think it’s going to work’. He was looking for someone to talk to … someone as enthusiastic about the idea of space as he was. He also asked if I wanted to go into space. I said, ‘Well that would be nice, but I don’t think I can afford it’. So he bought me a ticket.
I met Alan at a science journalism awards dinner back in 1996. He sat across the table from me and was like a laser, focusing on me and asking a million questions. He’s very intense and operates at 120 per cent capacity all the time. I don’t think he ever sleeps. A few years later, I was flicking through the BRW Rich List and saw a picture of Alan and his wife Elizabeth. They were worth like $215 million and I nearly fell off my chair. I just never pictured them as that wealthy. It surprised the bejesus out of me and I filed it in the back of my mind.
“We had a three-and-a-half hour lunch and he grilled us about everything – we just kept talking until there was no-one left in the restaurant. I knew I really liked him. I liked the depth of his mind.”
Alan got in touch with me again when I was editing a science magazine called Newton. He loved the mag and wanted to buy hundreds of subscriptions to give to his clients. Soon after that, Newton closed and his wife sent me a lovely email saying the publishers had been short-sighted.
In 2004 I wrote an email to Elizabeth along the lines of: if you guys are serious about Australia needing a quality science magazine, then my partner Kylie and I have a proposal for you. We had a three-and-a-half hour lunch and he grilled us about everything – we just kept talking on and on and on until there was no-one left in the restaurant. I knew I really liked him. We drank red wine and ate pasta. I liked the depth of his mind. He was sharp, sharp, sharp.
Things soon changed from niceties to ‘bang, we are in business’. He got his lawyers to talk to our lawyers but that nearly killed the deal. The lawyers bred a lot of distance between us. Alan rang me and said ‘Let’s fire the lawyers – if you want to steal my money and take off to Brazil, no lawyer will stop you’. We have had a dream run with him as an investor. He has put up seven figures, a not insubstantial amount, to create COSMOS.
It was just a few weeks later that Alan made the offer to send me to space. But he rang Kylie and asked if I had felt pressured into accepting. Kylie told Alan that he was like a genie to me, which is completely true. ‘Oh genie Alan, can I have a science magazine?’ Yes Wilson. Oh Alan, can I go into space?’ Yes Wilson.
Right now, there are only 444 people in the whole world who have been into space. I am expecting it to be an exceedingly emotional experience. Some people come back and discover religion. One of the guys that came back from the moon is now a Christian evangelical and another is a painter who paints obsessively about the moon, desperately trying to recapture that feeling of intensity that being in space gave him
Virgin Galactic has actually asked us whether they should provide meal service and have a hostie on the flight and Alan’s reaction was ‘Are you kidding?’. Space flights are supposed to be ‘only the brave’ and a hostie asking if you want a Diet Coke would ruin that.”
Alan: “Wilson and I didn’t come together from friendship. We’d been only the briefest of acquaintances and that has now developed into a business partnership and a friendship. I wouldn’t say I am any kind of genie because no matter how much Wilson rubs that magic lamp, he doesn’t just get something by putting up his hand.
Space is a gut level desire for me. I am frankly excited about being up in that void and seeing the black sky punctuated by non-sparkling stars. I can’t wait to feel the slow motion of zero gravity.
“Space is a gut level desire for me. I am frankly excited about being up in that void and seeing the black sky punctuated by non-sparkling stars. I can’t wait to feel the slow motion of zero gravity.”
A private person can go into space today for US$25 million. That’s too much to pay. US$200,000, while not an insignificant amount, is an accessible amount. People spend more than that on cars. You see someone in a Porsche and you might envy them but you don’t ask them why they have spent so much money on it?
I prefer not to think of it as US$200,000 for seven minutes in space. I prefer to think of it this way – there are three years of anticipation, six days of training which finish with two days of not eating solid food. The actual flight will be two to three hours of circling up in the mother ship, and then some tense minutes of being launched up into space for seven minutes of weightlessness before descent.
It’s fun to do things with friends. Blokes bond by doing things together. It’s not that I am altruistic, I’m actually entirely selfish. I want Wilson to come along because it’s no fun travelling by yourself. You have no-one to reinforce the memories or reminisce with later.
It’s entirely appropriate for the editor of a science magazine to be on the bleeding edge. He should write about it to bring the magic of space alive for our readers, in the same way it was for me when I was a kid reading National Geographic and Scientific American.
Since I’ve retired, I have had a substantial number of business plans come by me but there are very few that I have invested in. I think Wilson just rubbed the right spots for me on my lamp. I get something out of it too. I love that the COSMOS office has a start-up feel. I love it even more that it’s them and not me. I’ve been there, done that and I can get vicarious pleasure from watching them do it.
“I love that the COSMOS office has a start-up feel. I love it even more that it’s them and not me. I’ve been there, done that and I can get vicarious pleasure from watching them do it.”
Wilson is a little stubborn. He’s got the Brazilian fire which I don’t want to put out. If I was an editor, there are things I would do differently. We definitely have constructive tussles.
If he was not the editor and co-founder of COSMOS, it would never have come up about him going into space. But the gift is his regardless of what happens to the business. It was not like, here are some milestones you have to achieve and then you get your bonus in the form of a free trip into space. Let’s just do it, see it, write about it and enjoy it.”