There’s no drinks trolley, no toilets and no inflight entertainment – so at $200,000, that’s a pretty high price for not very much by way of service.
The earth view, though, more than makes up for it.
At least that’s what it seems like when you’re sitting through the impressive animation film, the high-density computer graphics promising the experience of – quite literally – a lifetime.
By 2009 Virgin Galactic hopes to start taking private individuals on sub-orbital flights to space and back for the first time in mankind’s history aboard SpaceShipTwo, a commercial manned space vehicle based on SpaceShipOne.
Already, some 70,000 people from 125 different countries have registered to travel to space with Virgin Galactic but the world's first spaceline has only 200 confirmed space travellers. “Well first of all the entry process is quite high. For a first-year flight the minimum down payment is a 100,000 dollars. That takes away the vast majority of people. The other thing is that this is still intangible to most people. We haven’t flown anybody yet to space. So buyers are putting down big money for it without seeing the product, without knowing when they are going to go. We haven’t gone out there to sell the maximum amount of tickets at all,” Stephen Attenborough, head of astronaut relations at Virgin Galactic, told TTN.
What the spaceline has done is sign a regional representative, naming Dubai-based Sharaf Travel its Accredited Space Office (ASO) for the Middle East. “We are delighted to have been selected as the official Virgin Galactic ASO for the Middle East,” said Salah Sharaf, chairman, Sharaf Travel. “Since the establishment of Sharaf Travel in 1991, we have been at the forefront of travel, constantly introducing new ideas and innovations – our latest is space travel.”
Beyond the Middle East, Attenborough said, the spaceline will appoint accredited offices around the world – particularly in markets services by the airlines in its group. “We already have an ASO in Japan. The main market in Asia is China but for the moment, we have issues marketing there. But we are confident that those will resolve in time. The focus this year will be on Europe and in the next couple of months Virgin will be announcing the appointments of accredited space agents in Europe’s principle centres. We also hope to get down to Canada, Mexico and South Africa this year,” he said. “We also have the advantage of having a very large database of registrants from the website and so we can look at where these people come from geographically and make sure we can have the right representation in those key areas.”
The first test flights are slated to take place at during 2008 and the first commercial flights likely in 2009. Each will carry six passengers and two pilots, last around two-and-a-half hours, include a period of weightlessness and follow three days of pre-flight training in Mojave, California, and later Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Virgin says the ticket prices – a mere fraction of the $20 million price tag associated with other commercial space tourism providers – are necessary to recover over the long term the $20 million invested in the venture, and that revenues will be re-invested over the first few years back into the business, with the company striving constantly to lower prices.
Over time, the spaceline also hopes to build spaceports in other parts of the globe – Attenborough said the firm would not be limited to the one launch station. “All we need to do is get a runway, a reasonably long one, but one smaller than required for the A380,” he said. “The more important thing is you couldn’t do it from any airport in the world. Besides the right regulations, lots of empty space and good weather is very important because we will only fly in clear conditions. Air space is the other really significant thing. There is no point in us undertaking any volume flights where you have got a lot of traffic overhead.”
With those criteria met, he said the launch system could be taken virtually anywhere in the world – even potentially the Middle East. “We have had one or two conversations with people in the Middle East. I think it would not be difficult in time to find willing investors and people who would love to make this possible here. At the moment, however, we are fairly focused on getting those first flights done, but we are keeping an eye on from where we can fly from in the future. And certainly the Middle East has been identified as one of those areas.”
In the light of the current debate on aviation’s contribution to global warming, Attenborough dismissed concerns that space travel would use even more energy than commercial flights. “If you are a passenger on Spaceship Two then your carbon footprint on a return trip will be around 25 per cent less than were you on a passenger on a return flight from London to New York. That is miniscule when you compare it with anything that’s gone to space in the past because the carbon footprint is enormous for the space shuttle. It’s worse when you add in the toxicity involved from outputs from solid rocket wastes.” The spaceline is working on developing a renewable jet aviation fuel that would reduce air carbon footprints by 70 per cent, he added. “We will get there but its just a matter of time.”
Finally – what about travel agent commissions? “For those we appoint as space travel agents, we pay a small amount of commissions. Obviously for retail agents, some kind of arrangement will need to be worked out – but with the ticket price so high, the commissions will be pretty high. We want to reward people properly but we are not going to be paying 10 per cent for this.”
by Keith J Fernandez
TTN is the most established trade publication in the Middle East distributed on a controlled circulation basis to members of the travel and tourism industry.
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