A new study’s forecast of a bright future for space tourism comes as no surprise to Linda Turley Garrett, a California travel seller who has been devoted to the niche for nearly seven years.
A research report commissioned by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and the state of Florida suggests that Garrett's focus on the niche is a smart move. The report concludes that commercial suborbital space flights will generate up to $1.6 billion in revenue during their first decade of operations (see sidebar).
Accredited Space Agents
Garrett, president of Alpine Travel in Saratoga, Calif., was selected by Virgin Galactic to be an accredited space agent, or ASAs; she is one of 72 in the Americas so far.
After giving up her childhood dreams of being a fighter pilot, Garrett never imagined she would one day be helping those who can afford it to become astronauts aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.
In spite of the $200,000 price tag, she’s managed to sell three trips so far. Her space travel clients will join the likes of Stephen Hawking and Tom Hanks, who reportedly have signed on.
Looking for passion
Virtuoso serves as the official retail channel for Virgin Galactic and is responsible for conducting the ASA selection and training process, but Virgin Galactic makes the ultimate decision about who will sell its product. Agents must have a history of dealing with very high-end products and be well-established in their communities.
“We’re looking for passion, motivation and innovation,” said Tony Poe, Virtuoso’s manager of air and space sales. ASA agents have accounted for one-third of Virgin Galactic’s total sales and exceeded $10 million in overall sales so far.
$20,000 deposit required
A minimum $20,000 deposit is required to reserve a seat. Those who want to be among the 500 passengers who fly during the first year of operations have to put down the entire $200,000 fare. So far, more than 430 people have done that. Nearly 200 more have put down deposits for flights after the first year of operations.
It’s not an easy sell, according to Garrett, who noted that the process can take two years or more.
Although Garrett declined to divulge commission details – she said ASAs are prohibited from doing so – both she and Poe said the commissions will not make agents rich.
Garrett was one of the first to sign on for the Virgin Galactic program when it launched. Since then it’s become a huge part of her life. “We live and breathe Virgin Galactic and are on pins and needles about what’s going to happen next,” Garrett said.
Part of the experience is the ASA training, which has included space training at the Kennedy Center. “We’ve done such cool stuff,” she said.
She and her fellow ASAs also have been to the National Aerospace Training and Research Center (NASTAR), where she had a chance to experience flight simulation.
“We’ve had the test pilots from Virgin Galactic come. And we went to Scaled Composites in Mojave and got to tour the facilities and meet the engineers who are building SpaceShipTwo.”
In October, Garrett will travel to New Mexico to visit SpacePort America, the home of Virgin Galactic and the site of the future SpaceShipTwo launches. SpaceShipTwo, which carries six passengers and two pilots, is expected to enter its last phase of flight testing before year-end.
Not surprisingly, Garrett is among a handful of travel agents who plan to take a Virgin Galactic flight one day.
Selling the idea
Not only is Garrett selling tickets for SpaceShipTwo, she's selling the idea of space travel itself. She has has been interviewed on local San Francisco Bay Area radio news programs and for many articles, including one in the New York Times last December.
She staffs tables at events to talk about Virgin Galactic, including a recent Space Day open house at the Space Station museum in Novato, Calif. More than 1,500 people attended.
A new era
A big part of the appeal for Garrett is being involved in ushering in a new era of travel.
“Five years from now it will be like selling a flight on the Concord used to be. It will be very commonplace, and that will happen sooner than you know it,” she said.
In the meantime, selling space travel gives her agency a bit of prestige. “If I can send you to space, an African safari is pretty simple,” she said.