Virtuoso agents take one giant leap for space travel sales

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- For a select few Virtuoso travel agents, the sky is no longer the limit.

Forty-five of 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 space tourism.

The participants were selected through a blind evaluation of 125 applicants from the network of about 6,000 agents affiliated with Virtuoso.

When Carolyn 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 team.

"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 wayside."

  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

Richard Branson's 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 tangible.

"The 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 speeding bullet."

Passengers will 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."

Although other 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," she said.

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 atmosphere."

SpaceShipTwo, 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.

"It's almost 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 London.

Tai emphasized 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."

Whitesides said 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.

Virtuoso CEO 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 formed.

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

Virgin and Virtuoso chose Kennedy Space Center for the training because, as Wincer said, nothing else would have had the full effect.

Operated by 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 shows.

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.

The accreditation 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.

The minute details of the training drove home the realization that space tourism was becoming a reality.

The familiar 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.

After returning 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 happening."

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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