What Caroline Wincer, a charming and articulate New Zealander, is selling is nothing short of a dream.
To outer space and back, alive and kicking, for the price of a fancy house in South Delhi. And at the peak of that journey, 100km above the earth, four minutes of weightlessness.
So tempting, in fact, that her colleague, an earnest Austrian named Berhard Stingl, gets a faraway look in his eyes when he describes a journey he is yet to be on.
“The sky changes colours, going from blue to black and then you can see the earth below you,” he says. “It will be the richest four minutes of your life.”
Among other things, Sir Richard Branson’s companies are known for extravagant hyperbole. By that measure, Virgin Galactic, his ambitious swing at commercial space travel, has picked its salespeople well.
Even Praful Patel, the normally chatty minister for civil aviation, didn’t have much to say as Virgin’s salespeople went into hardsell.
Only $200,000 or Rs80 lakh. Less, depending on how the dollar is behaving.
“Just the cost of an S-Class Mercedes,” said Nipun Goenka, the nervous 21-year-old scion of the $1billion G.D. Goenka Group and director of Goenka World Travels, which hopes to sell 20 Virgin Galactic tickets to Indian clients in the next few years. One Indian and three non-resident Indians are already on it.
Branson’s project, which is almost a decade in the making, is a serious one: to fund science that will create affordable and safe travel into the immediate areas outside the earth’s atmosphere. SpaceShipOne, which now hangs at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, won the $2 million X-prize a few years ago, when it made two trips to space and back within a period of two weeks. Its scientists are now creating SpaceShipTwo, bigger than its namesake, in which six passengers and two pilots can make two-hour trips.
But it’s when the project comes down to earth—to the packaging and selling of an experience that for decades has defined the pinnacle of human achievement—that things become a little surreal.
After all, Winder, Stingl and Goenka are selling space travel in a country where less than one in 100 people has been on a plane. India’s frequent fliers, and the airlines, have more primitive problems: bird-hits, flickering radars for air traffic control, airplanes built in the 70s, around the same time Americans perfected space travel.
“You have had test flights?” asked minister Patel, looking quite impressed.
“You have been to space and back?”
Even Patel, who has flown almost every commercial airplane in operation today, seemed tempted.
“Maybe after a few others have been made guinea pigs, I might consider it,” he said with a grin. “I certainly won’t be the first one.”