Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Josh Bush is the only travel agent in Pennsylvania licensed to sell space travel tickets; he just so happens to work at Park Avenue Travel Agency in the Ville. He discussed commercial space travel and his special privilege with the Gazette.
Daily Gazette: Can you tell me more about yourself and Park Avenue travel agency?
Josh Bush: My family [has been in] on the business for twenty years, I kind of grew up in it. When I was a teenager, I did not really want do travel business. I went off to college at the University of Richmond; afterwards, I worked for the Capital One Credit Card company for five years, and then at a commercial real estate investment firm for a number of years. Then, four years ago, in 2006, my parents came to me and they asked me if I wanted to be involved in the company growth. At the time, our agency, Park Avenue Travel Agency, had four agents and now, we have over 25 [agents] all over the east coast.
DG: How did you get involved in selling Virgin Galactic tickets, and what was the application process like?
JB: Toward the end of 2005, we were presented with this idea of selling Virgin Galactic space travel tickets. I observed the implications of what it would be like, and since we do luxury leisure travel, it seemed like one more opportunity to offer to our clientele. There is nothing more experiential than going to space. We had a rigorous application process that we had to go through; the application itself was 7 to 8 pages, and there were a series of interviews. Over 150 of the best travel agents applied all over the United States and I was selected as one of 45 [agents] in the country to sell Virgin Galactic.
From there, in February 2007, we went the Kennedy Space Center and underwent training for four days. We learned the physics behind the trip, medical implications, and the trip’s purpose.
I’ve been really involved [with] this project from its inception. I have seen the carrier aircraft worked out, experienced weightlessness 0G flights, and got spun around in a centrifuge in G force training. Short of actually going to space myself, I’ve undergone the exact same physiological effects that clients would experience during a space flight.
DG: Why did you decide to commit yourself to this project, and has it been very successful?
JB: It’s about the opportunity to provide experiences to our clients, looking to the next new and best thing. From my point of view, it’s looking at technology; short parabolics of suborbital flights will ultimately mean orbital flights in the future. This is a means to an end of something that’s going to be much greater. This technology’s implications on humans and travel are revolutionary.
Since February 2007, over 350 tickets have already been sold. The trip’s ticket price is $200,000. Park Avenue Travel clients are all over the world, so we don’t have anyone local who have purchased the tickets yet. The tickets we have sold have been customers out of the area.
Our ticket sales go up as we get closer and closer to making this a reality. When we unveiled the design two years ago, we saw a big jump in sales. When the spacecraft was revealed this past December, there was a big jump in sales. People are going to starting to realize this is more and more a reality.
DG: Can you tell me more about what a person would experience on a Virgin Galactic trip?
JB: I want to mention that although you are actually buying a three day experience, it doesn’t mean 3 days in space.
On the first day, you check into a fancy, luxurious hotel and meet the other 5 passengers and two pilots who will be on your space flight. Over next two days, you would undergo medical checks, training, have your flight suit fitted, etc. This is a neat couple of days where you figure out how this is going to work, and this builds and culminates in the third day of your flight.
In morning of flight, you go off to the hanger and friends and families can go to special viewing in the hanger to watch you take this trip. This trip is not a ground launch system. The spacecraft is attached to a carrier aircraft. The special designed aircraft will carry the aircraft to altitude of 50,000 feet. This process takes two and half almost 3 hours.
If everything looks good, the carrier aircraft will release the spacecraft, the carrier aircraft will pull away, and the pilots in the spacecraft will ignite the rocket motor. When the rocket is ignited, the spacecraft is going from 50,000 feet to 365,000 feet in 3.3 seconds, more than three times the speed of sound.
You could hear this loud noise of the rocket motor burning. Once the spacecraft has enough energy to reach that altitude, the pilots will shut the rocket motor off. There isn’t that wind resistance to create that noise any longer, so you’ll have this violent loud noise, then it falls completely quiet.
Once the captain turns off fasten seat belt sign, you can start to float. There is a window, 17 inches in diameter, and you can see curvature of the earth and the edge of atmosphere. There are going to be cameras inside that spacecraft so families will be able to see you inside floating and outside of the spacecraft as well. In total, you have 4 minutes of weightlessness.
After that point and time, the spacecraft will reenter the atmosphere, a process that takes about 90 seconds. The designer of the spacecraft developed this special feathering mechanism where the spacecraft’s wings and tail feathers rotate up. It takes out any human error, any computer error, reenters the same aperture, the same way every single time. After 90 seconds, those wings and tails will feather back, then it’s going to be a slow black to blue process. After the initial jolt of the reentry, there is this really cool spiral down for 45 minutes. The entire flight is 3.5 to 4 hours.
DG: How exactly was this technology developed and when are these flights going to start happening?
JB: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, had always wanted to go to space. He found that over the last 40 years, the government hasn’t encouraged a lot of space exploration. In the early 1990s, he registered the name Virgin Galactic and started a search to find a company that had the tech to make this happen. In 2004, the technology was identified. In 2005, they started to take reservations, and the full-scale sales effort started in mid-2007. The spacecraft prototype was completely unveiled December 7th of last year.
Now, we’re moving to stage where we have begun test flights. It will be an exhaustive process because it is not a space race, it’s a safe race. Once the testing regimen finishes, we will be sending out two flights out to space a day. Over the next 12-18 months, we will see a lot of exciting things happen.