Environment & Science

Traveling to space? He'll help you get there

Travel agent Jay Johnson holds a model of the ship Virgin Galactic plans to use to take tourists into space.
Travel agent Jay Johnson holds a model of the ship Virgin Galactic plans to use to take tourists into space.
Sanden Totten / KPCC
Travel agent Jay Johnson holds a model of the ship Virgin Galactic plans to use to take tourists into space.
Virgin Galactic's "SpaceshipTwo" rockets over the Mojave Desert during a test flight on 10 January 2014.
Travel agent Jay Johnson holds a model of the ship Virgin Galactic plans to use to take tourists into space.
Josh and Rheta Resnick holding up a picture book given to them after they reserved tickets for Virgin Galactic's space flight. Josh bought the tickets seven years ago.
Sanden Totten / KPCC

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Jay Johnson is a travel agent to the stars ... or at least to sub-orbit.

He's what Virgin Galactic calls an ASA or "accredited space agent." That means Johnson is authorized to sell tickets to Virgin Galactic's planned space tourism experience.

Related: 4 ways to make money in space

The company plans to send six passengers at a time to suborbital space in its vehicle dubbed SpaceshipTwo.

Once there, tourists will float weightlessly for several minutes before returning to Earth.

"It's the ultimate icebreaker," Johnson said of his job. "I can’t walk into a room anywhere without bringing it up. It’s not just about selling the tickets; it’s just fun to talk about."

Johnson also runs Coastline Travel Advisors, a luxury travel business based in Garden Grove. He was selected, along with around 100 other travel agents, to help sell seats for Virgin Galactic.

They were educated on the basics of space travel, from flight technology to zero gravity conditions.

Over the last seven years, Johnson has sold eight tickets, which may not sound like a lot, but each one sells for $250,000.

Future astronauts

Finding buyers hasn’t always been easy.

“In the early stages, ... we had no clue who the clients would be,” said Lynda Turley Garrett, an ASA in the Bay Area.

She’s tried marketing at science-themed events, travel expos, museums, even at luxury car dealers.

It’s not like selling other adventure vacations, she says, in part because Virgin doesn’t even have an official launch date. The company says it could start flights by the end of 2014.

Still, between the two of them, Turley Garrett and Johnson have sold to a techie from Silicon Valley, a real estate broker from Columbus, a 70-year-old South Korean retiree and a few celebrities who wish to remain anonymous.

Also in that group, is Josh Resnick, a video-game developer from Brentwood, and his 79-year-old mother, Rheta.

"Even talking about it I get excited" Josh Resnick said.

For him, the allure of being one of the first civilians in space was a big draw.

For his mother, Rheta, it was the chance to do something she dreamed of as a kid but didn't think would be possible.

"When I was born, there was no television, ... no real washing machines. So we’ve come a long way," she said.

Challenges remain

The space tourism industry has made remarkable progress in recent years, said Dirk Gibson, a professor at the University of New Mexico and author of the ebook "Commercial Space Tourism: Impediments to Industrial Development and Strategic Communication Solutions."

"I think we are closer now than we ever have been," he said.

But, he adds, there are several hurdles ahead for Virgin Galactic and other companies looking to sell space-based travel experiences.

For instance, they have technical issues to work out, and they still need to secure Federal Aviation Administration approval for flights.

Greg Autry, an adjunct professor at USC's Marshall School of Business, says safety is also a concern. "Unproven complex technical systems are subject to failure," he said. "As we've seen in the commercial aviation business, ... things do go wrong."

That’s partly why Virgin is taking so long to finalize a launch date. A spokesman said the company won’t send people up until it can minimize safety risks.

Still, both Autry and Gibson think this industry will continue to grow.

Ticket to ride

Another barrier for most people is the $250,ooo price tag for a Virgin Galactic flight.

Jay Johnson, though, has an opportunity to bypass that fee. The company has offered ASAs like him a free ride if they sell 10 tickets total. Johnson, with eight customers so far, is almost there.

But he says, if he hits the goal, he probably won't use the ticket himself.

"I honestly think I am going to donate it. Because I would love to go. But I’ll wait my turn until I can afford it."

In the meantime, he’ll keep working the phones, showing up at travel expos and scouring Southern California for people with a dream of flying to space ... and a couple hundred thousand dollars to spare.