Published January 12, 2012
Craig Curran can book you an out-of-this-world vacation.
Curran is one of the 120 travel agents around the globe authorized to sell tickets on behalf of Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed venture that aims to establish the world’s first commercial spaceline.
While the dream of bringing space travel to the masses has existed for decades, it’s closer to becoming a reality than you might think. Virgin Galactic has been leading the charge, having conducted multiple tests flights of its spacecraft and building a specialized terminal and hanger facility in New Mexico.
Perhaps most impressively, the company has managed to sell more than 470 tickets – each with a $20,000 minimum deposit – without setting any sort of launch date. Virgin has said it aims to fly 500 people in the first year, and 50,000 in the first 10 years. Tickets have been available since 2005.
While rumors have been swirling that Virgin Galactic’s first real flights could begin this year, the company has refrained from providing a concrete timeline. As you might imagine, sending people into space requires all kinds of safety and regulatory clearance; Virgin Galactic maintains that it isn’t in a race and will not launch until everything is in place.
Still, people are excited – and Curran is one of them.
With nearly 30 years of travel experience under his belt, the president of the DePrez Group of Companies says he got involved with Virgin Galactic because he is confident space tourism is the next big thing.
“There will be people traveling suborbitally and orbitally. There will be space hotels,” Curran says.
Virgin Galactic is currently focusing on suborbital travel, meaning sending a craft into space and bringing it back down without circling the earth. Orbital travel is a more complex endeavor, but one that Virgin Galactic is also exploring.
Speaking on his own behalf, Curran says he believes Virgin Galactic will be ready to launch its suborbital commercial flights in 2013. He says the technology has already been proven, citing the 2004 flight of SpaceShipOne, the first privately-funded, manned spacecraft to travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere. (SpaceShipOne was developed through a venture between Microsoft’s Paul Allen and aerospace engineer Burt Rutan; Rutan and Virgin Group’s Branson later partnered to form The Spaceship Company, which manufactures Virgin Galactic’s space vehicles.)
In the year or so that Curran has been an accredited space agent for Virgin Galactic, he has sold two tickets: one to a 40-something-year-old man with interests in aviation, politics and sports, and one to himself. He says he’s in touch with about 10 other people who haven’t yet signed the dotted line.
Understandably, people aren’t clamoring for tickets the way they might clamor over a $39 fare sale at JetBlue. At $200,000 a pop, it’s a pricey endeavor and one that won’t appeal to everyone.
“Not everyone climbs Mount Everest,” he says.
Curran says current ticketholders generally fall into a few categories: business leaders, celebrities and those with strong ties to the aviation and space industries. He says that, as in any new industry, early adopters are critical to space tourism’s viability and growth.
“This whole notion of this being an expensive trip just for rich people is really to miss the point,” he explains. “The first computer took up a couple city blocks, it could hardly count to 10 and it cost incredible sums of money. You need early adopters or this industry doesn’t take place.”
The trip itself is a multi-day experience that begins at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in New Mexico. Curran explains that a hotel will be built specifically for passengers, who will spend several days undergoing physical and mental training for the trip.
On launch day, six passengers and two pilots will be seated in a spaceship that will be stowed under a mothership until it reaches about 50,000 feet, says Curran. At that point, the spaceship will be released, and after a 90-second burn in which the spaceship reaches speeds of 2,500 miles an hour, passengers will be in space.
Curran says this is the point where passengers can float around in the ship and take in views of the earth.
“The rocket motor will stop – there will be dead silence. You’ll be able to see for 1,000 kilometers in any direction,” he says. “At that point, you can take photographs, have a religious experience – whatever suits your fancy.”
After a few minutes, the spaceship will glide back to the spaceport in New Mexico.
The entire ride is estimated to take between 90 and 100 minutes.
While plenty of questions still exist about the details of the trip, Curran says he has no doubt space tourism is the way of the future.
"This is happening; there’s no question about that."