With Virgin Galactic's suborbital flights expected to begin at long last, space tourism could soon take off as a niche for travel advisors. Those already involved caution that it takes patience, training, and commitment.
For travel advisors Lynda Turley and Alfred Volden, who signed on with Virgin Galactic as accredited space agents more than a dozen years ago, the long wait to send eager clients on suborbital flights may soon be over.
While Virgin Galactic has not yet announced a launch date, there is widespread speculation that flights on the company’s SpaceShipTwo vehicles could be just months or even weeks away.
A recent indicator came from Virgin Galactic officials speaking at a press conference last week during Spaceport Americas Cup, a rocket engineering event for students, in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
“We have every expectation that we will be in commercial operation next year,” said pilot Don McKay when asked when the flights will start.
The six-minute, $250,000 flights will feature an air launch, rocket-powered ascent at three and a half times the speed of sound, several minutes of weightlessness and views of the Earth’s curvature.
“It is something everyone should experience,” said Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor and program manager, at the press conference. “I can tell you firsthand the view is stunning, being weightless and stationary — coming to a peaceful stop at altitude.”
Virgin Galactic completed a final test flight of the spacecraft in February and moved its headquarters in May to Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, where the flights are to be launched.
“These are both really good indicators that Virgin Galactic is getting ready to begin flights,” said Valerie Stimac, editor of the blog Space Tourism Guide and author of Dark Skies: A Practical Guide to Astrotourism, set to be published by Lonely Planet in September. “Richard Branson has said he’d like the launch to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, which will be on July 20.”
It’s Rocket Science
Turley, president of Alpine Travel in Saratoga, California, and Volden, president of All World Travel in Albuquerque, are also confident that the launch is imminent. Both are among the 27 accredited space agents, participants in a program offered by Virgin Galactic through the Virtuoso consortium that enables advisors to sell the flights after extensive training.
For Turley and Volden this has included experiencing suborbital flight simulation at the National Aerospace Training and Research Center, visiting the Kennedy Space Center, Spaceport America, and the Mojave Desert test site.
Since first announced in 2006, an estimated 700 people have signed on for the flights, a star-studded list that reportedly includes Tom Hanks, the late Stephen Hawking, and Virgin Galactic owner Sir Richard Branson. Many have persevered despite setbacks, including the catastrophic crash that killed a pilot when a Virgin Galactic prototype rocket crashed in the Mojave desert in October 2014.
Turley has several clients, including a family group, who put down deposits on the flights over seven years ago and are still eager to get on board. She said her confidence has never wavered and plans to take one of the flights herself.
“I knew this literally is rocket science and would take a lot to actually get going,” she said. “I was heartbroken by the crash, but never discouraged.”
On October 31, 2014, a Virgin Galactic SpaceshipTwo aircraft crashed during a test in California, killing the co-pilot and injuring the pilot. The U.S. National Transportation Safety board pinned the blame on pilot error and other factors, including the Federal Aviation Administration’s lax oversight.
Travel advisors will have to deal with that legacy as they embark on this new business.
Booking a Virgin Galactic flight, which cannot be done through a global distribution system or website, is unlike handling other types of travel, Turley said. The process begins with contacting a Virgin Galactic representative in London who furnishes the travel advisor with an extensive contract for the client to review with a lawyer.
“After the client reviews the contract, the funds are wired to Virgin Galactic, who does an extensive data check on the client based on information we have given them,” Turley said. “We get the ball rolling, but Virgin Galactic takes over from there.”
While designated accredited space agents are the only travel advisors allowed to book Virgin Galactic flights, interested space travelers can also book directly by contacting Virgin Galactic. Accredited space agents are not allowed to divulge the flight commission amount, which, according to Turley, “is not nearly as much as people think.”
Jennifer Campbell, Virtuoso’s managing director for professional development and agency services, told Skift the Accredited Space Agents program is currently on hold as all the available flight seats have been sold.
“More seats will be available in the future, and we are excited about the next phase of our relationship at that point,” she said.
Volden currently has one client on the books, who signed on back in 2008.
“He’s remained excited and engaged throughout the process,” Volden said. “We have other clients who are interested, but for the past couple years Virgin Galactic has put selling the seats on hold. I think we’ll see a resurgence of interest once sales can be resumed.”
Turley, a self-described “geeky person” whose childhood ambition was to be a fighter pilot during a time when this was not an option for women, said being a space agent has more to do with personal passion than financial gain.
“Those of us who were in this from the beginning are actually behind in earnings because of all that we’ve invested in training and promotion,” Turley said. “No advisor should go into this thinking they’ll get rich. Frankly, I can make more selling world cruises or other types of luxury travel.”
To succeed in space tourism, Turley also believes that it’s essential to already have a clientele with not only the means but a proclivity for high-end adventure.
“Some of my clients were already the type who would travel to the Everest base camp or to Antarctica,” she said.
Volden agrees that clients with an interest in adventure travel are likely candidates for suborbital flights, but added that many also like the sense of being part of something historic.
“A lot of people interested in the flights like the idea of being among the first to experience something few others have done, the chance to be among the first 1,000 civilians to go into space,” he said.
An Expanding Universe
Stimac believes that space tourism holds business potential for travel advisors, primarily because it is something that consumers cannot easily arrange on their own. She also noted that it’s an expanding field, where major players also includes Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is also expected to launch suborbital flights within the next year.
“I think space tourism is a good niche for travel advisors, with suborbital flights just one aspect. It also involves things like traveling to see rocket launches, eclipses, or stay in a habitat that simulates life on the moon,” Stimac said. “In many cases there is red tape involved or the destinations have limited infrastructure. People need assistance from a travel advisor.”
Stimac also believes public interest in space tourism will only continue to grow, with a recent boost coming from NASA’s announcement that it will allow tourists to visit the International Space Station, traveling to the facility in SpaceX capsules and paying $35,000 a night to sleep there.
Space Travel for All?
While currently the domain of the very rich, Stimac believes that the prices on suborbital flights will eventually be within reach of many more travelers.
“It may take 15 or 20 years, but I think you’ll see the cost come down to around $50,000, particularly since Branson and Bezos are using reuseable rockets that will allow for many trips out of each vehicle,” she said. “It will be a kind of aspirational travel that people will save up for, like going to Everest or Antarctica.”
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Photo credit: Virgin Galactic suborbital flights may be starting soon. Pictured is a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle in December 2018. Bloomberg