SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Plenty of travel agents can sell you a trip to just about anywhere on earth, from Accra to Zanzibar. But Lynda Turley Garrett goes one better. She can sell you a ticket to a place few have gone before: outer space.
Garrett, of Alpine Travel of Saratoga, is one of three "Accredited Space Agents" in northern California selling $200,000 tickets for slightly more than two hours of flight on Virgin Galactic, with trips beginning as soon as 18 months from now. As such, she exemplifies a striking development: How an idea that has long been in the exclusive realm of science fiction -- that someone could buy a ticket to fly into space, stay on an orbiting space station or even travel to the moon -- has moved from the fictional to the commercial.
With a boost from several prominent Internet figures, space tourism is becoming a big business, even though significant technical, business and political hurdles remain before it becomes a regular -- and a commercially viable -- occurrence.
"Each person has a different reason; each person has a different passion," said Garrett.
She has sold three seats on upcoming flights and is saving to take a Virgin Galactic flight herself one day. "Some want the adventure. Some remember the moon landings and remember saying, 'I'm going to be there someday.' "
Virgin Galactic's winged rocket will carry passengers on suborbital flights about 62 miles above the earth. With more than 400 people who have plunked down at least $20,000 to reserve a seat on its six-passenger ship, and a $212 million commercial spaceport nearing completion near Truth or Consequences, N.M., Sir Richard Branson's firm says it has the clear lead among a growing number of companies that hope to establish space as a tourist destination.
"We feel we can reach out and touch this now," said Stephen Attenborough, the commercial director of Virgin Galactic. "The vehicles are real; they are flying."
A host of other companies hope to launch even more ambitious -- and expensive -- space tourism voyages. Space Exploration Technologies Corp., a Southern California-based company founded by PayPal co-founder and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to develop a system to resupply the International Space Station with its Dragon capsule following the retirement of the space shuttle next year, but it also hopes to carry paying passengers into orbit. SpaceX says a ticket to orbit would cost about $20 million.
Other big aerospace corporations are jumping in, including Boeing, which is also vying to transport crews to the space station for NASA. Using a seven-passenger space capsule Boeing hopes to develop by 2015, the aerospace giant said in September that it would join a partnership with Virginia-based Space Adventures to sell trips to the space station, or to a private space station being developed by Bigelow Aerospace, a company bankrolled by Robert Bigelow, the billionaire founder of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain.
Space Adventures has already sent eight paying passengers into space using Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin has placed a $5 million down payment and is first in line for a future flight into orbit. Now the company is advertising a trip around the moon for two paying passengers, something the company's president, Tom Shelley, says could happen in three to four years.
Space Adventures is also working with a Texas company, Armadillo Aerospace, to develop a rocket that would carry private passengers on a sub-orbital trip like Virgin Galactic's, and Shelley said the company has more than 100 reservations at $110,000 a trip. A third company, Blue Origin, which is bankrolled by Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, is also working on a suborbital passenger rocket.
"We hope to beat Virgin to it, but that's part of the fun at the moment," Shelley said. "This is now really hard cash that is going into these projects, where people will start to fly on those vehicles in the next few years. Is it one year? Is it three? Is it five? I don't know. But there is an inflection point where these ideas have got the money they need in order to succeed."
With the commercial launch development efforts of both SpaceX and Boeing dependent on NASA funding, however, the political cross-currents of Washington may prove as treacherous as mastering the technology. And given the uncertainty and the extreme cost of orbital flights, Virgin Galactic, which has already found a strong governmental partner in the state of New Mexico and its outgoing Gov. Bill Richardson, appears to have the inside track to become the first private company to send significant numbers of tourists into space.
The New Mexico spaceport, which will be called Spaceport America and is being built on 18,000 acres of state land adjacent to the restricted airspace of the federal government's White Sands Missile Range, is being partly financed by the state and by new taxes approved by two local counties.
"We're talking about the beginning of a whole new industry, the commercial spaceflight industry, and part of the state's intention was to get in on the ground floor and use our natural assets, which are unique," said Rick Homans, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.
Maureen Gannon, of San Francisco, was among the first 80 people to buy a ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight more than four years ago, placing her near the front of the line when flights begin. Gannon, who owns and operates a company that consults in the garment industry, speaks four languages fluently and was educated and worked in Europe for many years.
Gannon believes her flight -- five minutes floating weightless through the cabin and a view of the blue curve of the earth stretching 800 to 1,000 miles in any direction -- will be a transformative experience.
"I just felt like, how could I not take this opportunity? How could I let this pass by?" said Gannon, who is also getting her pilot's license. "It's been a dream I've had since I was 10."