Space Tourism Depends on Client Buzz
"Space Tourism Depends on Client Buzz - Celebrity leisurenauts become
unofficial spokesmen for Virgin Galactic"
: They are celestial missionaries of sorts: professionals with a
: wild side, celebrities with money to burn and semi-retirees with a
: hankering for one last thrill.
: What they share is a desire to float weightless for a mere five
: minutes. They've also got $200,000 to book a flight into space.
: Even without a guarantee that they would ever blast off, these
: leisurenauts are voluntarily promoting commercial space travel
: — still several years away, at least — with an almost religious
: fervor in speeches, writings, even art exhibits.
: The buzz is about Virgin Galactic, the fledgling spaceline founded
: by British airline mogul Sir Richard Branson. It strategically
: chooses its clients to be the public face of the company in an
: effort to draw attention to and, it hopes, corner the infant space
: tourism market.
: Take Trevor Beattie, a London-based advertising guru with a
: trademark mop of curly black hair. Beattie was in Los Angeles at a
: space conference this spring hyping a flight he expects to take in
: 2008 — the program still awaits federal approval and the
: completion of its rocketship.
: Flanked by Virgin Galactic executives, Beattie gushed about his
: idol, moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, who happened to be in the crowd.
: "When I was a kid, I wanted to be Buzz Aldrin. Now I'm a fully
: grown adult ... and I still want to be Buzz Aldrin," said Beattie,
: 46, who has agreed to create for free a 60-second commercial for
: Virgin Galactic that will hit theaters in the fall.
: In the ultra-secretive world of personal space flight, Virgin
: Galactic is depending on customers such as Beattie to spread the
: word. While "founders," as the first 100 Virgin Galactic
: passengers are known, aren't required to promote the company, many
: eagerly do.
: One is Namira Salim, a 35-year-old artist who splits her time
: between Monaco and the United Arab Emirates.
: Inspired by her founder role, Salim will host an exhibit focused
: on space tourism in her native Pakistan in September featuring a
: handcrafted replica of SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the
: first privately funded, manned rocket plane to reach space. Virgin
: Galactic has contracted with SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan to
: develop the suborbital spacecraft SpaceShipTwo that would
: initially launch from the Mojave Desert and later at a proposed
: spaceport in New Mexico.
: Salim, who used inheritance money to reserve her seat, chafed at
: the notion that only the rich can afford to go to space.
: "If founders don't make their contribution today, then the common
: man won't be able to fly tomorrow," she said.
: More than 60,000 people have registered to fly with Virgin
: Galactic since 2004, but only about 200 have paid full or partial
: deposits totaling about $16.4 million, according to the company.
: That money is refundable if flights, which would have six
: passengers and two crew, never take off.
: Its competitor, Virginia-based Space Adventures, which brokered
: three tourist flights to the international space station, has more
: than 200 reservations, but only $3 million in escrow. Oklahoma-
: based Rocketplane Kistler declined to disclose sales figures.
: Which company emerges as the space tourism leader likely will
: hinge on its safety record — as well as the personalities a
: company flies into the final frontier who return with gushing
: tales of seeing Earth from above.
: Space tourism experts say they aren't surprised by Virgin
: Galactic's strategy given Branson's marketing savvy. Though the
: company says it respects its clients' privacy, it trumps a
: celebrity founder roster that includes former "Dallas" actress
: Victoria Principal, designer Philippe Starck and "Superman
: Returns" director Bryan Singer. (Singer featured a Virgin Galactic
: spaceship in his movie after contacting Branson about the company.)
: "They're very sophisticated about branding, name recognition and
: all those emotional connections," said John Spencer, founder of
: the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Space Tourism Society.
: The company is picky about who gets the first rides, said Virgin
: Galactic executive Stephen Attenborough, who oversees relations
: with space tourists. Founders are "our greatest ambassadors.
: Without them, we have no business," he said.
: Candidates are carefully screened for geographic and occupational
: diversity. Rejects can apply to be "pioneers" or "voyagers"
: — those who fly next. Unlike founders, who pay $200,000 upfront,
: pioneers and voyagers just put down an initial deposit.
: Eighty founders have enrolled; the remaining 20 slots will be
: filled by invitation. Once in the founders' club, members enjoy
: special perks including access to a password-protected Web site
: where they can contact other passengers. They also become
: automatic gold card members of Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline
: and get invited to events where they are treated like rock stars.
: The company wants to send 500 people into space in its first year
: of flights — roughly the same number of people who have gone up in
: 45 years of space travel.
: One is Alan Walton, a 70-year-old daredevil who has skydived at
: the North Pole, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and is penning a book
: about life as a founder that will climax with his trip to the
: Walton, who emigrated from England with just $10 and made his
: fortune in biotechnology and venture capital, was among to first
: to send in his check.
: "This is something that I spend every day thinking about — the
: excitement of doing something that so few people have the chance
: to do," said Walton of Westport, Conn.
: Not everyone is eager to sign up with Virgin Galactic.
: Reda Anderson, a 66-year-old real estate investor from Los Angeles
: who has dived down to the Titanic and driven across the Gobi
: Desert, preferred Rocketplane Kistler because unlike Virgin
: Galactic, the company gives her open access during construction of
: its spacecraft.
: "If someone is secretive," she said, "I tend to shy away."
Mark Reiff <markreiff@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
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