In a keynote presentation this Wednesday during the Future Travel Experience conference in Las Vegas, Jonathan Firth, Virgin Galactic’s senior vice-president of the Spaceport and Program Development shared with delegates his vision of the passenger experience for the first-ever space tourism flight.
The Child Who Inspired a Billionaire
It’s 1988. Richard Branson, more yellow-than-white blond sits, smiling, among a circle of children, holding a Saved By the Bell-sized cell phone to his ear. The host of BBC’s TV show Going Live! gives the floor to a caller on line three, a young boy named Shihan Musafar who asks the mogul: “Have you ever thought about going into space, Richard?” Everyone, including the billionaire, giggles. “I’d love to go into space, as I think pretty well every one watching the show would.” And so began Virgin Galactic.
The Virgin Touch
“Fortunately, being a billionaire and having a large group of companies, this was something that Richard was able to do,” Firth quipped to delegates during his presentation after explaining the spark that inspired the enterprise.
With Virgin Group companies in several industries ranging from air travel and hospitality to entertainment and consumer mobile services, Virgin Galactic has a wealth of resources to draw from and, according to Firth, has taken advantage of this. “Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Limited Edition, Virgin Hotels – these are all companies that people have transferred onto our team from,” he shares. “A lot of the thought about making a reservation, going to a destination, creating a customer experience and fulfilling it… is something we want to transfer into our preparations for Virgin Galactic.”
Cabin design is another aspect being leveraged from Virgin’s established ventures in the travel market. Leading the design of SpaceShipTwo’s cabin interiors and seating systems is Adam Wells, who joined the Galactic team from Virgin USA where he was responsible for the product experience and brand development of Virgin Hotels, Virgin Cruises and other companies.
Firth explains that Wells drew upon pre-existing Virgin aircraft cabin designs, with a few important modifications. “The big difference is, when you design an aircraft interior, you’re dealing with a 1-g environment,” Firth jokes. There aren’t any plans for seat-embedded entertainment systems, but with windows positioned for otherworldly views, chances are, passengers will be entertained nonetheless. But for those who want to tweet from space, Firth noted with a laugh: “I think we’ve got to find a way to do that. Everyone is used to being able to do that.”
This is How You Will Become an Astronaut
According to Firth, the program has received a great deal of genuine interest. “There’s a great number of people who want to do this… We already have more than 700 people who have signed up and made the deposit.” And on a $250,000 ticket, a paid deposit marks a pretty firm commitment.
But passenger commitment to the space experience goes high above paying the price for a ticket. Unlike a conventional air travel journey, passengers undertaking an extraterrestrial require a certain level of training: To some extent, they have to become astronauts.
But unlike the rigorous training of NASA-qualified astronauts, the Virgin Galactic process requires four days: a welcome day, cabin day, rehearsal day and flight day. Throughout the preparatory process, soon-to-be space cadets are briefed, orientated, led through a master class, fitted with suits and gear and much more.
“The more you understand what’s going to happen to you, the less anxious you are,” Firth explains. “And the less anxious you are, the more ready you are to enjoy it.”
On the day of the flight there’s an early morning briefing, suiting up, boarding, and then liftoff. For the first hour of the journey, the spaceship brings the rocket up to the altitude that it gets released at. The separation takes place within a few seconds and the rocket motor blasts, creating a boost period of slightly over one minute. After ascending, passengers can leave their seats, experience weightlessness and partake in interplanetary sightseeing. After the descent, passengers disembark, debrief and celebrate.
“People are expecting a life-changing experience… and they’ll be with a network of people who will have had that experience too,” says Firth.
Welcome to New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment
Within that network may also be the friends and family who accompanied their astronaut-in-training to the New Mexico Spaceport facility, but didn’t make the flight.
Virgin Galactic has teamed up with several companies in the area, including Hotel Encanto, Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa and Word Class Gourmet to perfect the hospitality aspect of the space program. “We’re trying to have a local flavor to it,” Firth explains. “We want them to know that they’re coming to New Mexico and enjoy it for what it is.” The collaborations with local companies not only promise to deliver on this approach to hospitality, but also intend to stimulate the economy in the region.
During the experience, guests may elect to partake in the region’s burgeoning eco-tourism activities, or visit the nearby White Sands park – which Firth notes, can be spotted from space.
When asked about how Virgin Galactic bolsters its culture of innovation, Firth replied, “I think it comes from the top. It definitely comes from Richard because he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘no.'” A can-do attitude that has given Branson a new nickname among his colleagues: Dr. Yes.