See Your Space Travel Agent.

Space travel has long seemed a far-off idea. But some travel agents — there are only 72 "accredited space travel agents" in North America — have begun dangling that prospect in front of clients.

 US based travel agent Kelly Shea is Indiana's first such agent and she has begun pitching space tourism to her regular clients. "I think all of us have a need to explore. It's in our DNA," Shea said. "And besides, talk about having a conversation at a cocktail party."

Despite the high cost — $200,000 per ticket — and the limited time actually spent in space, she thinks space travel will catch on among the traveling elite. Virgin Galactic, a company headed by British billionaire Richard Branson, has become the first to offer such flights to ordinary tourists.

For $200,000, space tourists will board a rather odd looking plane at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, take off on a regular runway and climb toward the sky for about an hour until they reach 50,000 feet.

Then an attached rocket is ignited, and in less than 10 seconds, they are supersonic and traveling vertically out of the atmosphere at a speed of nearly Mach 4, or about 3,000 mph. After 90 seconds, the rocket is shut down and the plane gently settles into the solitude and quiet of space.

There tourists float, literally, about 68 miles above the surface of the Earth. And for about five minutes, they get to unbuckle their seat belts and enjoy zero gravity, floating around the cabin, taking in some incredible views of space through multiple porthole windows.

And then the pilots will adjust the wings and the plane will drop back into the atmosphere, an intense 90-second re-entry. From there, it's a 20-minute glide back to the runway at Spaceport America for a familiar, jet like landing.

Virgin Galactic says more than 450 people around the globe have already paid more than $57 million to reserve their seats.

The New Mexico state-funded Spaceport is nearly complete. Test flights have been successful thus far. And the first real flight with paying customers could be just a year or two away. The company refuses to issue any formal estimate, other than to say the flights will begin when all safety issues are answered.

Shea, an Indianapolis native who learned to love the travel industry by working long summers as a tour guide in Greece, has spent the past 16 years cultivating a client list that includes many big-time spenders.

Because of her credentials and prominent clientele list, Shea was invited to apply to Virgin Galactic to become one of the accredited space agents. She trained in Dallas, then last month flew to New Mexico for the dedication of the Spaceport.   Source: Wausau Daily Herald

The Race to Space

Just 100 miles north of El Paso, in mostly empty desert broken by roaming buffalo and wagon tracks left by settlers who pushed into the Western frontier, a private company prepares to take tourists to space.

Despite delays that have put the project a year behind schedule, construction on Spaceport America is 95 percent done, says spaceport spokesperson David Wilson.

Its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, could send tourists into space as soon as 2013, if everything goes as planned.

"This is a great American story," Wilson says. "We are on the leading edge of commercial space as a country."

Seats into space go for $200,000 and the company says it's sold 450. But the economic impact goes much further, economists say.

"This thing is a risky venture, it really is, but if it works, it can change the region in very profound ways," says Jim Peach, professor of economics at New Mexico State University, who worked on the team that created the spaceport's business plan in 2006.

The spaceport won't be completed until sometime in 2013, but tourists are already paying to see the construction, and private companies are paying fees to send rockets to the boundary of space.

Since 2006, private companies have launched 12 rockets into suborbital space from Spaceport America, on trips bought by the Defense Department and NASA, as the space agency shifts to commercial space.

On a recent Thursday, tourists armed with cameras flooded out of a tour bus onto the massive runway at Spaceport America, eager to be among the first to stand where Virgin Galactic plans to shoot tourists into space, and to see the spaceport's striking architecture.

The group came from Albuquerque, N.M., on a big black bus operated by Follow the Sun Inc., but no such tours are operated from El Paso, despite its being a good deal closer.

"The money is already starting to come, and it is already starting to get busy," Wilson says.

But talking to tourism officials, investors, businessmen, economists and public officials in El Paso, one gets the sense that the immediate interest in the project, despite being two hours up the road from Downtown El Paso, is mostly in New Mexico. New Mexico is where the tour starts. Source: El Paso Inc.

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