Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Stellar Vacation

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PHM0614Flash-1-2Valley-based travel agents sell tickets to space aboard Virgin Galactic.

At 50,000 feet, the countdown begins. The six-passenger rocket plane detaches from the mothership and shoots up, shuddering as it breaks the speed of sound. The force of 3Gs pins you against your seat. The blue sky purples into black. The engine cuts, and suddenly: silence. You release your seatbelt, and the pilot announces you are free to float about the cabin. You are now an astronaut. You perform a zero G somersault and gaze at the curved planet and its slim sapphire halo, glowing against the backdrop of the galaxy.

This is the experience Betsy Donley and Didi Johnson, Arizona’s only Accredited Space Agents for Virgin Galactic, are selling.

Last September, at a party for 300 future astronauts and their guests, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson announced his intention to take his family on the first commercial flight into suborbital space by Christmas of 2014. In the company’s 10-year history, the multi-billionaire had predicted launches before. None came to pass. But this was different, says Johnson, who attended the party at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California: “There was kind of a hush, and in a huge hangar with that many people, for there to be a hush was impressive. And then the chatter started: ‘Did he just give a date?’”

In a February 2014 article in The Guardian, Branson said a passenger-free test flight would launch in the spring. If all goes well, the 740-odd pioneers who’ve paid $200,000 to $250,000 a ticket will soon line up to travel roundtrip from White Sands, N.M., on SpaceShipTwo, the world’s first commercial spacecraft. It can’t come soon enough for Donley. In 2006, Virtuoso, the luxury travel consortium with exclusive Virgin Galactic booking rights in North America, chose her and 44 other travel specialists to be the first Accredited Space Agents. “I’ve been doing adventure travel for 23 years, and [space travel] is the ultimate adventure,” says Donley, who works at Camelback Odyssey Travel in Phoenix and recently returned from tracking gorillas in the Congo.

The accreditation process took her on a whirlwind tour: Cape Canaveral, Fla., to get schooled by astronauts; New York City to hear Branson outline his vision; the NASTAR Center in Philadelphia to experience a 3G flight simulator; Mojave, Calif., to watch the unveiling of WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership that will carry SpaceShipTwo; and White Sands to tour Spaceport America, where the flights will launch.

Johnson, who also works at Camelback Odyssey Travel, got accredited in 2011. Donley and Johnson have each sold one ticket – to a Canadian scientist and a college student, respectively – and have a few clients ready to put down money after they witness successful flights. In their capacity as space solicitors, the agents hear different questions than the usual cruise customer concerns: Will I have to be Neil Armstrong-fit? No, Donley says. After all, Stephen Hawking has a ticket. “They have an 18-year-old that’s going, and they also have an 80-year-old. They really figure it’s something that anybody that’s normally healthy can do.” Does life insurance cover rocket explosions? Virgin Galactic doesn’t sell insurance yet, so Donley advises clients to check their policies.

But the most common question is: When can I go? Donley is skeptical of a 2014 launch. The spacecrafts’ ground-breaking combination of aerial launch, hybrid engine and “feathered” re-entry (see sidebar) is still in testing mode.

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Johnson is more optimistic: “I know [Branson will launch this year] if he can, and I know if he can’t, there’s a really good reason... I’m selling trips to space; I want to know these clients, and I want to have them for a long time. So I’m very happy they’re taking such care.”

Space Travel Itinerary
Though the flight will last two hours, the experience spans three days. The first two days, astronauts meet their rocket-mates (the SpaceShipTwo rocket ship holds six passengers and two pilots), get measured for spacesuits and personalized seats, undergo medical and psychological tests to ensure they’re in reasonable health, tour the spaceship, and experience a flight simulation. On launch day, WhiteKnightTwo, a twin fuselage turbojet, will carry SpaceShipTwo to 50,000 feet, then release it. The pilots will fire up the rocket engine for 90 seconds, speeding to 2,500 mph before they cut the engine. (The aerial launch and limited fuel use reduce the risk of explosion and per-passenger carbon emissions, which will be less than that of a business-class flight from New York to London.) Astronauts will be weightless for about five minutes as the rocket floats to 68 miles above Earth. Passengers will return to their seats, now recumbent to help them cope with 5Gs of acceleration. The wings will raise, and the rocket will mimic a shuttlecock, tipping nose down and falling to Earth, slowed by the “shuttlecock-feather” wings. The wings will lower, and the plane will glide – fuel-free – back to the spaceport. 

 

 

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