Reserving flights to space, including travel insurance

Updated: 2012-01-15 08:08

By Kenneth Chang (The New York Times)

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 Reserving flights to space, including travel insurance

Virgin is offering $200,000 flights into space. A plane carried Virgin's SpaceShipTwo in New Mexico. Frederic J. Brown / Agence France-Presse - Getty Images

To go to outer space, Catherine Culver went to a travel agent.

The first flights of the new airlines that will take tourists past the threshold of space are poised to take off this year, and getting a seat on one is not all that different from booking a trip someplace on Earth. You can sign up on the Web site of, say, Virgin Galactic, or go to a travel agent. And soon you will be able to buy travel insurance.

Until now, space tourism has been limited to the ultrawealthy: just seven people have paid tens of millions of dollars each for a trip aboard a Russian rocket.

But that could change this year, when Virgin Galactic intends to start offering $200,000 flights on a rocket ship it has built.

At least two other specialty airlines have jumped in, taking reservations for future space flights. Allianz, the big insurer, will introduce an insurance product in 2012.

"Just to be able to sell space travel as a regular part of your business, really, just how cool is that?" said Lynda Turley Garrett, president of Alpine Travel of Saratoga, California, one of 58 accredited space agents for Virgin Galactic in the United States. There are reportedly 125 worldwide.

In five years, Ms. Garrett has sold three seats. But she expects that to change once passengers start going up and coming down to tell their friends.

Reserving flights to space, including travel insurance

In addition to Virgin's Richard Branson, the entrepreneurs who have introduced space ventures include Elon Musk of SpaceX and, more recently, Jeffrey P. Bezos, the Amazon.com founder, and Paul G. Allen, a Microsoft founder. Their companies are focused on carrying satellites to orbit and winning NASA contracts, but they have indicated that passenger trips may be part of the plan.

Ms. Culver, who has worked as a mission controller at NASA and now gives motivational talks, has always wanted to go to space; she applied four times to become a NASA astronaut, with no luck. For Ms. Culver, the Virgin flight will fulfill a dream, albeit an expensive one. "In California, it would be similar to buying a house," she said.

By putting down a $20,000 deposit, she became one of 475 people who have reserved a place on a Virgin Galactic flight.

The flights will be up-and-down "suborbital" jaunts akin to a giant roller coaster ride, offering about five minutes of weightlessness at the acme of the flight. For Virgin's customers, the ride to space will culminate a three-day trip to the newly built Spaceport America in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Part of the time will be spent on training and preparations. Part of it will be fun on the ground. "Typical Virgin, there'll be parties going on," Ms. Garrett said.

On the third day, a carrier airplane with the SpaceShipTwo rocket ship slung underneath will take off from the runway and fly to 15,000 meters, where the rocket ship will be launched. At that point, the force of acceleration will press passengers deep into their chairs - someone who weighs 75 kilograms will feel like half a metric ton.

Then the roar of the engine will fade, the sky will turn black, and weight will become weightlessness. "You'll be able to unbuckle, move about the cabin, do somersaults," Ms. Garrett said.

After that, the passengers will strap back into their seats before SpaceShipTwo re-enters the atmosphere, exerting another few minutes of crushing force. Once it has slowed, it will glide back to the runway.

The New York Times

(China Daily 01/15/2012 page10)