Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s commercial space tourism venture, is scheduled to unveil SpaceShipTwo today. It’s the first spacecraft designed with the sole purpose of carrying paying passengers into suborbital space.
Among the first astronauts will be Matthew Upchurch, chief executive officer of the travel agency consortium Virtuoso. Virgin Galactic has trained more than 70 Virtuoso travel agents as Accredited Space Agents. I asked Upchurch to tell me more about space travel — and space travel agents.
What will it be like to travel into space on Virgin Galactic?
Life-changing. That’s the best way to describe it. I’ve never aspired to be an astronaut like many others who want to take this flight, but I am dedicated to travel and seeking out the best possible experiences as it relates to travel.
One of the major purposes of travel is to put yourself in a position where you can view the world from a different perspective. Virgin Galactic is the first organization to develop technology that allows the common person to venture into suborbital space, and there is no better way to see the world from another perspective. Of course, all flights are dependent upon meeting U.S. regulatory and licensing requirements.
As for the experience itself, the spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, will be attached to the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, which completed construction in July 2008 and has been in test flights since then. After climbing to an altitude of 50,000 feet, SS2 will launch from WK2 and continue on its journey of climbing approximately 68 miles into the earth’s atmosphere. The six passengers per flight will experience four to five minutes of weightlessness and complete silence as they turn off the engines. Although most people are excited to float about without the restrictions of gravity, it’s seeing the curvature of the earth that most excites me.
Seeing the world from that perspective and knowing that fewer than 500 people have made that journey — that’s what is life changing.
From there, the spacecraft glides back to earth, with a two-hour descent that ends with a runway landing.
What are the training requirements for being a space traveler?
Passengers undergo a series of training and testing to ensure they’re ready and properly prepared for the trip. Because of the lead time, passengers now have the opportunity to experience zero-G flights or complete centrifuge training at NASTAR if they choose to do so.
Otherwise, the Virgin Galactic three-day experience includes medical testing and training so that passengers meet all health requirements and know what to anticipate.
How much will it cost?
Right now, there are only two ways to get to space as a paid tourist. The first will cost you $45 million, and the other is a flight with Virgin Galactic. The cost for the full Three-Day Virgin Galactic program is $200,000 — a fraction of the price of the alternative and an experience like no other.
When I took the zero-G flight, two things struck me. First, it was physically easier than I anticipated and second, those 15 to 20-second parabolas produced the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. One woman walked away saying it was the most fun she’d ever had with her clothes on. I can only imagine the joy and excitement 4-5 minutes of weightlessness will create.
When can I book a trip into space?
You can book your seat right now. Just contact a Virtuoso Accredited Space Agent. The first passenger flights are expected to launch within the next 18 to 24 months, depending on how test flights progress with SS2.
Once flights start launching, there are three passenger levels that determine your placement in line. The “Founders,” who have paid in full, will be the first 84 passengers to go up and I’m part of that group. Next it’s the “Pioneers,” who will fly within the first year of operation and have deposited $100,000 to $175,000 to secure their spot. And , then the “Voyagers,” who will travel immediately following the “Pioneer” group and have deposited $20,000. Within those groups, placement is determined by a lottery system.
But, if you want to take the flight within the first year of operation, you have to book soon. Virgin Galactic has already sold about 300 seats to space.
Are you planning to take a spaceflight?
Of course, and I couldn’t be more excited to go! As mentioned, I’m one of the “Founders,” meaning there’s a 1-in-14 chance of being on the second flight up. Sir Richard Branson and his family, including his parents and children, have dibs on the first flight.
This is such a tremendous breakthrough for the travel and tourism industry, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be at the forefront of history.
What does it take to become an accredited space agent?
Well, first you have to be a Virtuoso member agency because Virtuoso is the exclusive sales channel for Virgin Galactic throughout all the Americas, from Canada down to Argentina. When Virgin Galactic first launched their Accredited Space Agent Program, they contacted us. We were incredibly flattered because if ever there was a product sexy enough to sell itself, it’s space travel. As Virgin Galactic explained, though, a product as unique and exceptional as this one requires a professional salesperson who knows how to sell unique experiences as well as service upscale clientele. Given our history with other Virgin product, including Virgin Atlantic and Virgin’s Limited Edition properties, we had a long and successful history with them.
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