GOLDEN, Colo. – After witnessing the initial surge of public interest in suborbital space tourism that followed the successful flight of the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne three years ago, officials at Virgin Galactic thought the pace of paid reservations might slow down in 2007 — particularly since SpaceShipTwo is not slated to launch before late 2009 at the earliest.
They needn't have worried.
"In the last quarter, we have doubled the number of bookings taken on the same time last year," said Carolyn Wincer, head of astronaut sales for Virgin Galactic.
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Wincer told SPACE.com the company had thought that interest might drop for a while until the new spaceship was rolled out.
"However, this is not the case at all," she said. "As word gets around that you can make a reservation now, people are keen to secure a place. Even better, uptake is in line with our 'best case scenario' from our original business plan ... meaning that the price point and estimates of interest that we projected ourselves, and based on market research, are so far proving to be correct."
So in the big picture, Wincer says the strong public interest is, "Good news for all space enthusiasts and for the industry as a whole!"
Initially, Virgin Galactic space flights will operate from the Mojave Spaceport in Mojave, Calif. — home of Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipOne and where SpaceShipTwo is now coming together.
The Spaceship Company, a joint venture announced in July 2005 between Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group and Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites, has contracted Scaled Composites to design and build SpaceShipTwo and the carrier mothership WhiteKnight Two.
SpaceShipTwo is being designed to accommodate six passengers. It is scheduled to be unveiled before the end of 2007 and will be named Virgin SpaceShip (VSS) Enterprise.
Virgin Galactic will own and operate at least five of the new spaceships and two motherships. The spaceline operator has established a set payment of $200,000 per seat, with a minimum refundable deposit of $20,000 to make a reservation.
Wincer said 200 customers from 30 different countries have already made deposits to confirm their reservations.
Space Sales Force
Fresh statistics from Wincer show some interesting trends.
The country that is home to the largest number of ticket buyers is the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Spain, and Ireland.
In terms of the proportion of Virgin Galactic customers per capita, the top three countries are New Zealand, Ireland and Denmark.
Of the customers who have signed up so far, 15 percent are female, Wincer's statistics show.
Ten percent of total customers booked through a travel agent, but 30 percent of the bookings have been received via Virgin Galactic "Accredited Space Agents" — an initiative launched in January of this year, she said.
Accredited Space Agents are registered travel agents who have been specially selected and fully trained on all aspects of the Virgin Galactic offering.
As for Accredited Space Agents (ASAs) around the world, the numbers are as follows:
— Australia has nine travel agencies and about 30 travel consultants.
— New Zealand has one national chain with 10 consultants.
— Japan has one agency with five consultants.
— The United States has 47 consultants from about 45 agencies, all of these are members of Virtuoso, a leading leisure travel network.
— Canada has six consultants from four agencies (who will be trained next week in Vancouver and are all Virtuoso members).
— The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has one agency with about 12 consultants.
Then add one agency and two to three consultants from each of the following who are all being trained this week at the International Space University: Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, Russia, Israel, and the Czech Republic.
"I mention the number of consultants as they are the ones who actually become 'ASAs' after they undergo our one day training program covering technology, customer experience, g-forces, medical issues, sales, marketing and public relations," Wincer said. "By doing a quick tally, by the time we finish the training in Vancouver, we should have around 100 ASA consultants worldwide from around 82 agencies in 17 countries."
Takeoff to touchdown
What you get for your $200,000 includes three days of pre-flight preparation, bonding and training onsite at the spaceport.
The big day arrives with departure of the White Knight Two that cradles SpaceShipTwo, hauling the vehicle and passengers to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) in altitude for release.
Space travelers will then be rocketed to around 360,000 feet (109,728 meters) in altitude, some 68 miles (109 kilometers) high, with "fee-floating" passengers experiencing 4 to 5 minutes of microgravity.
Faces pressed against large windows, customers get an on-high view of more than 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) in any direction.
As for the length of time for SpaceShipTwo to glide to a terra firma touchdown, that takes some 30 minutes. The suborbital journey ends with SpaceShipTwo gliding to a runway landing.
All-in-all, the suborbital sojourn — from takeoff to touchdown — takes approximately 2.5 hours.
In the United States, those who travel above an altitude of 50 miles (80 kilometers) are designated as astronauts.
The Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI), the world air sports federation based in Lausanne, Switzerland, defines spaceflight as over 62 miles (100 kilometers).
Virgin Galactic passengers will receive Virgin Galactic astronaut wings and may receive Federal Aviation Administration astronaut wings as well.
While initial spaceline operations will take place at the Mojave Spaceport, Virgin Galactic is to establish its headquarters and operate space flights from Spaceport America, now under construction in New Mexico and billed as the world's first "purpose built" commercial spaceport.
Momentum is picking up in readying Spaceport America for operations - but first the paperwork.
The New Mexico Spaceport Authority anticipates official filing of its license application later this year to the Federal Aviation Administration.
"We expect to receive the Record of Decision on the Environmental Impact Statement and the approval of the license application in early 2008, and we plan to break ground shortly after that," said Rick Homans, Executive Director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
"Bottom line ... we remain on schedule to be operational by late 2009 or early 2010," Homans told SPACE.com.
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