Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Meet Derek (56) ... he’s all set to become Northern Ireland's first spaceman

He has already made it to the very edge of Earth's atmosphere.

And now Co Down man Derek Heatly is hoping to be the first Ulsterman in space as he joins the likes of racing champion Lewis Hamilton and scientific legend Stephen Hawking on the Virgin Galactic voyage.

So far more than 430 people have signed up to join tycoon Richard Branson on the first few flights of the huge Virgin Galactic plane - and one of them is the lifelong space enthusiast from Groomsport.

The 56-year-old retired bank official says he followed the Moon landings as a teenager, sparking a decades-long fascination with space travel and culminating in the out-of-this-world opportunity to cross the final frontier himself.

Over the years he has seized every chance to meet the astronauts whose footsteps he will be following, 10 to date including Dutch astronaut André Kuipers, who is currently living in the International Space Station.

He has now signed up to join Branson's Virgin Galactic flight at a cost of $200,000 (£130,000), but admits he will probably have to wait a couple of years before it finally takes to the skies.

"I'm lucky I bought it when the pound was strong - it would have cost me a lot more now!" he said.

"I'm the only one from here, but there are three from the South going up in the mothership.

"The day before we go up we will see the previous batch of passengers coming back, and on the way to the runway we will be getting zero gravity training.

"Lewis Hamilton has booked six seats and Russell Brand is going. I heard William Shatner turned down a free flight. Stephen Hawking got a free trip - if he can go, I can go! I will be the first Ulsterman to go into space if all goes well, but it's still a couple of years away.

"It's a golden opportunity that has come along. You need the dollars and the determination to do it, and most people in this country have one or the other."

Derek already made it to the edge of space in 2003 in a weightlessness trip that took off from Russia.

"It took you 80,000 feet to the edge of space. It's very strange to see the sun shining in a black sky in the daytime and the curvature of the Earth. I went a third of the way into space," he said.

"It was very scary at first. The jet was nearly 40 years old and the pilot is behind you.

"It was a 30-minute flight and once it got going it was the smoothest flight I've ever had. It really was awesome.

"It's just hard to believe what you are seeing outside. You realise you are the only person up there apart from the guys in the space station 220 miles up." Derek has also taken full advantage of free services that allow members of the public to lodge their names on DVDs that are included on unmanned flights into space.

"My name is on the Rover that is going to Mars next August, along with about a million other people," he said.

Derek will be taking part in next week's BBC Stargazing events, which include public observing, starshows in an inflatable planetarium, meteorites, space photos and Q&A sessions at Lough Neagh Discovery Centre this Tuesday (6-9.30pm.

On the day before, a public Jupiter Watch will be held in front of the main building at Queen's University from 6-9pm, with a public lecture on Jupiter if the weather is cloudy.

And on Wednesday, a Stargazing Live event will see the public watching the skies at Beaghmore stone circles and An Creagan in Co Tyrone - one of the best dark sky sites in Northern Ireland.

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