-    The Toronto Star


Can you spare $200,000 for a few minutes in space?

Despite the economic downturn only a handful of the roughly 300 people who signed up for Virgin Galactic space flight have asked for deposits back

April 15, 2009    Toronto Star


Men with money were once boys with dreams. Which appears to explain why many dozens of them will defy a recession to defy gravity.

Virgin Galactic, the suborbital subsidiary of tycoon Richard Branson's Virgin Group, sells trips to space to non-astronaut folk for $200,000 (U.S.). Fancy-pants rocket notwithstanding, Virgin is not immune to that downward pull: sales slowed significantly in 2008, "head of astronaut sales" Carolyn Wincer said yesterday in Toronto.

But only a small handful of the 300-odd people who've made deposits of between $20,000 and the full $200,000 have asked for their money back, Wincer said.

The $200,000 buys a two-hour flight that includes four minutes of weightless floating. Also included, at no extra charge, are the titles Voyager or Pioneer.

"I was in third grade when the first man went into space," said Richard Laronde, a Virgin Galactic customer and the president of a Boston-area event planning company. "Watching it on TV and never thinking – well, actually, hoping – that one day it would be me."

Several other companies, including Torontonian Brian Feeney's DreamSpace, plan to take tourists into space in three to five years. Arizona's RocketShip Tours offers a price of $95,000. But deep-pocketed Virgin will almost certainly launch first. This matters.

"Part of the appeal is being part of the first set of people to sign up," said John Criswick, 45, chief executive of Ottawa's Magmic Games, and one of six Canadians on Virgin's customer list. "You're being part of the history."

"For a lot of people ... this is something they've wanted to do for a long time," said Jeff Foust, an analyst at the Washington-area aerospace consulting firm Futron Corporation. "They may have grown up watching the space race of the 1960s, fascinated by space and always wanting to be an astronaut. Now they have an opportunity to fly into space by, essentially, writing a cheque. If you've got that deep drive to do so, I suspect you'll find ways to come up with the money ... regardless of the state of the economy."

About three-quarters of Virgin's customers are male. Some are adventurers for whom space is merely the next frontier.

Laronde, Pioneer No. 93, has completed expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole. He, like Criswick, said he has not been hurt by the recession.

"I'm excited," he said. "Let's get moving. Let's go to space."

He'll have to wait. When Branson announced the Virgin Galactic venture in 2004, he said flights might begin in 2008. Delays have pushed the date to 2010, more likely 2011, Wincer said at a news conference promoting Virgin's Toronto sales agent, Vision 2000.

Customers will be sent into space by a rocket after being flown 50,000 feet into the air by a carrier craft called WhiteKnightTwo, which will take off from a runway, unlike the American space shuttles. It has passed three tests, Wincer said.

But the six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo, which will carry the customers to space after White- KnightTwo releases it, must still be tested before flights can begin.

Laronde can wait a little while longer. He has, after all, been waiting since the third grade.