Richard Branson is determined to take paying passengers to space. So determined, in fact, that Virgin Galactic has enlisted an elite group of accredited “space agents” to sell tickets at a starting price of $200,000.
In the Bay Area, Tony Cardoza [pictured, above] and Lynda Turley Garrett are two of three agents licensed to sell space flights, which they offer alongside African safari adventures. They have sold fewer than a handful of tickets between them, but they are convinced that sales will pick up as Virgin Galactic inches closer to launch.
Above: Images from the first test flight of SpaceShip2
The official launch date isn’t confirmed, but it’s expected for 2013 or early 2014. The flight is about two hours, and travelers — which the agents refer to as “future astronauts” — will experience four minutes of weightlessness and have a picture taken with the curvature of the Earth in the background.
A little-known fact is that if you don’t have $200,000 in the bank when you sign up for Virgin Galactic; you can save a seat with a $20,000 deposit and pay the rest when you receive a space date.
What’s it like to be one of the first “space agents?” Turley Garrett is a self-described space nut who has gone through months of training to sell less than a handful of tickets. “I wanted to be at the cutting-edge of travel,” she said. In the next decade or so, she expects to see the birth of space tourism, and with that, an influx of space agents.
Turley Garrett is an expert about space flight and the technology behind it. She describes two vehicles: the mother craft and space craft, which are hooked together on a hinge. The mother craft carries the space craft until the rocket ignites and you’re projected straight up in the air for 90 seconds. You’ll reach 68 miles above the earth. At that point, you’ll unstrap and float around for several minutes, before the space craft glides back to earth.
Today, approximately 120 space agents are licensed to sell tickets. Some countries, like Japan, have just one agent. In California, eight agents cater to movie stars and tech entrepreneurs (Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, and Stephen Hawking have signed up), the largest cluster in the world.
Above: Richard Branson and Turley Garrett at a Virgin Galactic training.
As part of the intense training program, the agents meet with test pilots, visit New Mexico to see the Spaceport, and get educated about the Virgin Group. Every month, they receive a call from Virgin Galactic, and are asked to report on their progress.
The space agents aren’t disheartened by the lack of sales. “I’m assuming the business will come,” said Cardoza, who has only sold three tickets. He believes that safety concerns aren’t the biggest issue. The problem is that people are still a little incredulous. “Our future astronauts are waiting to see something more concrete,” he said.
With this logic, the space agents should expect an influx of business. Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo just conducted its first successful flight test above the Mojave Desert, bringing us one step closer to private spaceflight.
Still on the fence? The space agents tell me that those who sign up early can tap into a community and attend private events with Branson; the Virgin chief and his family are some of the passengers on the first flight.
Who are the space agents selling to? Tech entrepreneurs
The space agents have had most success selling to tech entrepreneurs with a keen sense of adventure and millions of dollars in the bank. About half the people who have signed up for Virgin Galactic are tech CEO’s or entrepreneurs, according to Cardoza.
“Virgin picked us based on our access to clientele who would be able to afford something like this,” said Cardoza, who has been selling tickets for two years. “In terms of sales, the tech sector is number one.”
Above: “Future astronaut” and Amazon employee Lori Fraleigh.
Lori Fraleigh, who works for Amazon subsidiary Lab 126, will be travelling to space in the next year or two. To the envy of her friends, Fraleigh’s husband purchased a ticket for her birthday. Already, the future astronauts from the Bay Area have formed a community, and meet in-person at various Virgin Galactic events. Most of them are in tech.
“Im excited about the innovation in the private sector in terms of access to space” Fraleigh told me. “But by the time my kids grow up, it will be more commonplace and available to anyone.”