Santhosh George Kulangara, the managing director of a publishing company, has visited 50 countries over the last decade. Now, he plans to add outer space to that list.
Kulangara, 35, has received a confirmed reservation to join the first commercial flight to space on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, becoming the first Indian to do so and the 38th civilian to sign up for the $200,000 trip. That converts into just under Rs1 crore.
To secure his spot, Kulangara contacted Virgin executives through their website and paid a deposit of $20,000. “After seeing the world, a visit to space was definitely the next hot destination for me,” he told Mint. Hotelier Vikram Chatwal has also signed up for SpaceShip Two. He will be among the first 100 to fly in the second half of 2009.
The passengers’ total flight time is just two hours. But the package also includes three days for preparation, medical checks, bonding and gravity force acclimatization.
Virgin Galactic is the space tourism arm of UK-based Virgin Group, a large company with business interests from airlines to records, finance to wine. It plans initially to fly 500 people into space in the second half of 2009, its first year of operations. Kulangara likely will be part of a second round of flights made in the second year, 2010. Virgin officials say they hope to fly 50,000 people into space in the next decade.
“We are keeping some seats vacant as we want a vast geographical spread with people from different nations to fly out in the first lot of 100,” said Louella Faria-Jones, the astronaut relations executive for Virgin Galactic. Virgin has commissioned five spaceships for taking passengers to space under this initiative; the first one is being built in California.
Each spaceship can accomodate six passengers and two pilots. “Initially, we will be flying once a week, but we are looking to taking that to once a day eventually,” Faria-Jones added. In August 2006, Virgin Galactic contacted Kulangara, who had been running a travel-related serial, Sancharam, on Malayalam news channel Asianet since September 2001.
Kulangara is the managing director of Labour India Publications Ltd, a large educational publishing house in India. He is married and lives with his wife and two children, ages eight and one, in Kochi.
Asked if he’s nervous, Kulangara responded, “Not at all. I’m very excited.” He said he has started a one-hour exercise regime every day, mostly walking and stretching, to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol.
On 26 February, Kulangara and Virgin signed a contract after long negotiations, mostly centred on the travel buff’s request to be allowed to take his camera along. As per the contract, if Kulangara does cancel his ticket anytime, he will be reimbursed 90% of the amount paid by him. Kulangara conceded the $200,000 price is a hefty one and said he hopes to offset the cost by doing reports for television. Already, he says he has made money selling travel footage, and plans to release two books next week. Virgin says the space programme has drawn 200 people who have signed up, all with deposits paid. More than 70,000 people from 125 countries have registered interest on the website.
Virgin Galactic’s space flights will initially operate from the Mojave Spaceport in California and then eventually run from the world’s first-ever commercial spaceport—Spaceport America—in New Mexico. SpaceShip Two has been designed by Burt Rutan, based on the model he designed for the world’s first private manned space vehicle SpaceShip One, that flew to space thrice in 2004. Kulangara’s confirmation letter from Virgin read, “You will return from your flight as a fully fledged astronaut and will have secured your place in history.” India’s first man in space Rakesh Kumar Sharma isn’t quite so sure. “I was up for eight days and didn’t pay a penny. I wish him luck.”