Fla. -- For a select few Virtuoso travel agents, the sky is no
longer the limit.
them were recently picked by Virgin Galactic and Virtuoso to
complete a two-day training course at the Kennedy Space Center
here. They would emerge as Accredited Space Agents, the first in
America, authorized to sell tickets for the suborbital space rides
about to be offered by Virgin Galactic, one of the frontrunners in
were selected through a blind evaluation of 125 applicants from the
network of about 6,000 agents affiliated with Virtuoso.
Wincer, Virgin Galactic's head of astronaut sales and the training
leader, asked the agents to explain why they wanted to be involved
in space tourism, it soon became clear that the company would have
been hard pressed to find a more inspired and motivated sales
"It's the single
most exciting thing I've seen in my 31 years in this business,"
said one agent.
A San Francisco
agent of 27 years said, "It makes me feel giddy and young, this
adventure ... it's beyond words."
Another called it
"the most momentous thing to happen in travel. It's going to show
people perspective. All the trivialities will fall by the
Perhaps the most stunning thought of all, said Tom
Jackson, president of World Travel in Orange County, Calif., is
just "the realization that this is really happening," adding that
space tourism was becoming "a viable, operating thing."
Faster than a speeding bullet
Virgin Galactic stands at the cutting edge of space tourism's move
from fantasy to reality. It is already building its spacecraft and
plans to begin testing it late this year in preparation for
commercial launches as soon as 2008.
As Wincer and
Virgin Galactic COO and pilot Alex Tai described the Virgin
suborbital travel experience, the program became progressively more
WhiteKnightTwo, carrying SpaceShipTwo, gets to 50,000 feet," Wincer
said. "You see the curvature of the earth. Then SpaceShipTwo drops
[from White-KnightTwo], free-falls, the two clear each other and
SpaceShipTwo ignites and shoots into space, literally faster than a
be pinned to their seats by gravity for 90 seconds while the engine
screams and the craft climbs beyond the 62-mile altitude that marks
the threshold of space.
"It flies from
50,000 feet to 360,000feet, 70 miles," Wincer said. "The sky
changes from blue to black. The pilot turns off the engine to
instant silence and weightlessness. On one side, the view is black.
On the other is a 10,000-mile view in any direction on Earth.
You'll be in a spacious cabin with large windows. You continue to
climb for a while after the engine is turned off. Then the earth
pulls you back."
companies, such as Rocketplane and Benson Space, are vowing to beat
Virgin to first launch, Wincer stressed that Virgin was not in a
space race. The testing will begin in late 2007 for flights in
2008. If it's not ready, Virgin will wait, she said.
"Virgin is one of
the most recognized brands on the planet," she said. "We are not
going to risk that."
Alluding to the
U.S./Soviet cold war-inspired space race of the 1960s and '70s, she
added: "They ditched good technology to go for the quickest
solutions. They had accidents. We saw what happened when there was
a space race."
If the U.S.
government's overriding goal had not been to get to the moon before
the Soviets, NASA would never have settled for the technology it
went with, Wincer said. "It was like
flying a 747 to London and then throwing it away after one use,"
No business could
function with such a system, she said. The entrepreneurs of space
tourism had to find less wasteful, safer technologies.
In fact, Wincer
asserted, better technology for space travel was already available
when the space race began in the late 1950s. The piggyback air
launching system favored today by Burt Rutan, the designer of
Virgin's technology, was first used by experimental aircraft to
break the sound barrier, and then by the X15 rocket planes that
took pilots to the edge of space for the first time.
"The space race
changed everything," Wincer said. "They knew they couldn't do an
air launch to the moon in 10 years."
Returning to the
atmosphere presents another challenge that Rutan's design
approaches from a fresh perspective.
"When you hurtle
through space and return, hitting the atmosphere is like hitting
the ocean," she said. "You have to be aimed right so it's like
diving instead of belly flopping. You could skip off the
constructed of carbon composites that are light, strong and highly
heat resistant, was designed like a badminton shuttlecock, so it
"always comes down right," she said. And, like the space shuttle,
the ship glides to a landing.
Elegant in its
simplicity, Rutan's design has few moving parts, few things that
can go wrong.
fail-safe," Tai said.
The fuel is
nitrous oxide (a.k.a. laughing gas) and rubber. Unlike NASA rocket
flights, the pilot has the power to turn off the flow of fuel if
there is a problem, and the craft will glide safely to a runway
landing. According to Virgin, the carbon emissions for the flight
are less per person than a 757 flight from New York to
that all the players in space tourism have a common interest in the
success of the whole industry; any accidents or fatalities would be
a grave setback.
The agents also
heard from George Whitesides and his wife, Loretta Hidalgo, two
enthusiasts who have already put down their deposits to be among
the first 100 passengers aboard SpaceShipTwo.
"While our peers
were trying to buy houses, we were trying to go to space," said
Hidalgo. "We knew it was a little crazy, but that's what youth is
for, to do crazy things."
Virgin brought four vital elements to the space industry: the
capital to build a good spaceship, a track record for safety, an
aeronautical engineer of unique gifts in Burt Rutan and marketing
clout and brand recognition.
Matthew Upchurch said that although he was proud that Virtuoso had
been chosen as Virgin's exclusive selling organization, other
agents and consortia would soon be added as the industry
Upchurch said the
training "puts forth the value of travel professionals as
life-experience guides. These people deserve the recognition of
having elevated the profession. ... It's not about exclusivity, but
about establishing a new market."
Right here, right now
Virtuoso chose Kennedy Space Center for the training because, as
Wincer said, nothing else would have had the full
Delaware North under a contract with NASA, the space center's
mission is to celebrate the U.S. space program and spread
enthusiasm for it, meanwhile making what NASA considers a
reasonable profit. The center is not part of the space program
itself but a tourist-focused offshoot with exhibits and
The agents rode
in centrifuges that enabled them to experience 3 G-forces, and most
found it easily tolerable. "It was less significant than I might
have expected," said Tony Poe, director of marketing and public
relations for Poe Travel in Little Rock, Ark.
dinner ceremony at the end of the training was held under the
gigantic Saturn rocket that had been built for Apollo 19 before the
Apollo program was discontinued.
details of the training drove home the realization that space
tourism was becoming a reality.
aspects of training, studying the details of the product, assessing
market demographics, speculating on where to mine for sales
prospects, discussing selling strategies and many other details all
helped to anchor the fantastic aspects to the more mundane
realities of business and to underline the fact that space travel
was no longer just a fantasy.
to Arkansas, Poe said he found his world subtly altered.
"I did my
presentation yesterday," he said. "And the part that keeps coming
back to me is that this is for real. This is really
To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].