New York: To go to outer space, Catherine Culver went to a travel agent.
The first flights of the new airlines that will take tourists past the threshold of space are poised to take off in 2012, and getting a seat on one is not all that different from booking a trip someplace on Earth. You can sign up on the Web site of, say, Virgin Galactic, the most prominent of the new space tourism companies, or go to a travel agent and put down a hefty deposit. Soon you will be able to buy travel insurance, just as you can for any other vacation.
Until now, space tourism has been limited to the ultra-wealthy: just seven people have paid tens of millions of dollars each for a trip to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket.
But that could change this year, when Virgin Galactic intends to start offering flights just beyond the space barrier on a rocket ship it has built, featuring five minutes of weightlessness during a two-and-a-half hour jaunt. At $200,000 a seat, this will open the final frontier to far more people.
"Hopefully by next Christmas, myself, my daughter and my son will be the first people to go up into space" on a commercial craft, Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Galactic, said in a videotaped interview in November (with a touch of his signature grandiosity).
At least two other specialty airlines have jumped in as well, taking reservations (and deposits) for future space flights. Allianz, the big insurer, will introduce an insurance product in 2012, lending space tourism the trappings of the regular travel industry.
"Just to be able to sell space travel as a regular part of your business, really, just how cool is that?" said Lynda Turley Garrett, president of Alpine Travel of Saratoga, Calif., who is one of 58 accredited space agents for Virgin Galactic in the United States.
In five years, Ms. Garrett has sold three seats, including Ms. Culver's. But she expects that to change once passengers start going up and coming down to tell their friends.
By 2017, "it'll be just like scheduling a flight to L.A.," Ms. Garrett predicted.
Ms. Culver, who has worked as a mission controller at NASA and now gives motivational talks, has always wanted to go to space; she applied four times to become a NASA astronaut, with no luck. To book her spaceflight, she wanted a face-to-face conversation, so she looked through the list of Virgin's space agents and was pleased to find one near her home in San Jose, Calif. She and Ms. Garrett spent some time chatting, then went to lunch and chatted more.
Soon afterward, Ms. Culver put down her $20,000 deposit, becoming one of 475 people who have reserved a place on a Virgin Galactic flight. Most of them have already paid the full ticket price to rise above the 62-mile mark, which is considered the entrance to outer space. (People who pay in full will get the first seats.)
These flights will not orbit the Earth. Rather, they will be up-and-down "suborbital" jaunts more akin to a giant roller coaster ride, offering about five minutes of weightlessness at the acme of the flight. The trip is not for the faint of stomach: NASA used to train astronauts on a fast-diving airplane that offered intervals of weightlessness and was nicknamed the Vomit Comet - apparently for good reason.
For Virgin's customers, the ride to space will culminate a three-day trip to the newly built Spaceport America in Las Cruces, N.M. Part of the time will be spent on training and preparations. Part of it will be fun on the ground. "Typical Virgin, there'll be parties going on," Ms. Garrett said.
On the third day, a carrier airplane with the SpaceShipTwo rocket ship slung underneath will take off from the runway and fly to 50,000 feet, where the rocket ship will be launched. At that point, the force of acceleration will press passengers deep into their chairs - someone who weighs 170 pounds will feel like half a ton.
Then the roar of the engine will fade to silence, the blue sky will fade to black, and weight will turn to weightlessness. "You'll be able to unbuckle, move about the cabin, do somersaults, get your picture taken with the Earth's curvature in the background," Ms. Garrett said.
After that, the passengers will strap back into their seats before SpaceShipTwo re-enters the atmosphere, exerting another few minutes of crushing force. Once it has slowed, it will glide back to the runway.
For Ms. Culver, the Virgin flight will fulfill a dream, albeit an expensive one. "In California, it would be similar to buying a house," she said.
Astronaut dreams could reach the grasp of even more people if prices drop. In addition to Mr. Branson, the entrepreneurs who have introduced space ventures include Elon Musk of SpaceX and, more recently, Jeffrey P. Bezos, the Amazon.com founder, and Paul G. Allen, a Microsoft founder. The companies are primarily focused on carrying satellites to orbit and winning NASA contracts, but they have indicated that passenger trips may eventually be part of the plan.
Virgin Galactic is not the only one with paying customers. XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif., has more than 100 reservations for a $95,000 seat on its small space plane, which will have just two seats - one for the pilot and one for the passenger. XCOR could begin flying as soon as 2013.
And Space Adventures Ltd. of Vienna, Va., which has been taking reservations for a while at $110,000 a seat, has signed up more than 200 people. Its partner, Armadillo Aerospace of Heath, Tex., plans to build an automated spacecraft - no pilot - that can take up two people at a time.
One Space Adventures customer who paid his deposit more than a decade ago is Madsen Pirie, a British researcher who founded the Adam Smith Institute, which is dedicated to free-market policy. "I was the first person in Britain to sign up," he said.
He is disappointed that the wait has stretched out - Space Adventures has yet to set a target date for its suborbital flights - but he has no regrets. "It has been a story of postponed hopes," Mr. Pirie said. "I shall be hugely delighted when my turn comes around."
In a sign that things are speeding up, Allianz, which has a $1-billion-a-year travel insurance business, announced recently that it would offer insurance to Virgin Galactic customers to cover a range of possible problems, including last-minute cancellations and coverage for medical issues before or after the flight.
When the question of whether to offer space travel insurance first came up three or four years ago, "we said it was a joke at that time," recalled Erick Morazin, global accounts director at Allianz Global Assistance.
Currently, Virgin Galactic, XCOR and Space Adventures refund almost all of the deposit if someone wants to cancel, but Mr. Morazin said he expected their policies to become less forgiving in the future. "We will be prepared for this milestone," he said.