Paul Sammann is a world traveler. He’s a pilot with his own plane. He has sailed his own boat to Mackinaw Island, been face to face with polar bears on an Arctic expedition.
A few weeks ago, he was in the French Caribbean with his iPad, exchanging emails with a reporter.
“I am sitting outside on my veranda having a cigar and a single malt scotch,” wrote Sammann, a Michigan City, Ind., businessman who made his millions selling Peepers designer reading glasses (www.peeperspecs.com). “Life is good!”
But let’s face it, it could be better. There is one more trip — one final frontier — Sammann is thinking about these days.
As he looks to the heavens filled with so many stars, the flames of an old dream start to rekindle. What would it be like, he ponders, to finally — FINALLY — make it to space?
Carmel-based travel agent Kelly Shea — who recently became Indiana’s first and only official “accredited space travel agent” and one of only 72 in North America — is dangling that possibility before his eyes.
She has begun pitching space tourism to her regular clients, one of whom is Sammann.
“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.
What do you get for 200 grand?
From the recently dedicated Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, space tourists will board a rather odd looking plane, 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, jetlike landing.
Worth 200 G’s?
“Absolutely,” said Sammann, who has not signed up but is seriously considering it.
Who in the world?
Who would ever really do this? 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.
Besides, it’s a lot cheaper than the $20 million ticket bought by the world’s first space tourist, California businessman Dennis Tito, who hitched a ride on a Soviet space ship in 2001 and spent eight days on the International Space Station.
Travel agent to stars
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. Earlier this year, she opened a travel agency in Carmel.
Because of her credentials and prominent clientele list — she once booked an island vacation for a Food Network chef and his celebrity wife — 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.
Booking high-priced vacations is nothing new for Shea. Some of her clients have already done a $200,000 vacation, including a weeklong booking of a large private yacht.
“I did one . . . it was a killer ship,” Shea said. “It was $15,000 a day, plus on top of that they had some advanced provisioning. Plus, we had a client that wanted to have a gym brought onto the ship. So we went out and spent $20,000 in gym equipment to put on the yacht.”
The client sailed the Greek islands for seven days, making it one of the more extravagant trips she has ever planned. She has had others, too, but thinks none will stack up to a trip to space.
“I had a group of 10 people that climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for the millennium. I remember thinking that was just the coolest thing there ever was. But this (space) really tops that.”
Each flight to space will carry six passengers and two pilots. The first 14 trips will ferry a group of 84 known as the “founders” club. Next are the “pioneers.” If you wanted in one of those groups (and there are still some openings for pioneers), you have to pay the entire $200,000 upfront.
Starting with ticket No. 501, the “voyagers” catch a break: They need to put down only 10 percent as a deposit.
Then there are the training issues. Future space travelers are strongly urged to get medical clearance for the trip. And if they wonder whether they can survive the G forces involved in breaking through the atmosphere, they might want to do a simulated “vomit comet” ride.
“You just need to be in good physical condition. You don’t have to be a marathon athlete,” Shea said.
You must be at least 18 to make the trip, but there is no age maximum. The oldest person to sign up thus far is 90.
If you’re wondering how the science world is viewing space tourism, you should know that NASA has signed a deal with Virgin Galactic to charter up to three flights on its spacecraft to provide its engineers and researchers the chance to do some experiments in suborbital space. The cost: $4.5 million.
Purdue University aeronautics and astronautics professor Steven Collicott — a veteran researcher who is on the front lines of promoting research on commercial spaceflights — is part of a small group of researchers working to motivate scientific uses of tourist vehicles and is busy organizing a national “Next-Gen Sub-Orbital” researchers conference in February in Palo Alto, Calif.
He has a National Science Foundation-funded experiment ready to fly on another commercial venture known as Blue Origin, near Seattle, which is working to develop its own space vehicle. He also has several experiments developed by his undergraduate students poised to take part in test flights with commercial agencies such as Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space System, and XCOR.
Collicott admits he also understands the emotional attraction of a space flight for the average person.
And sure, he’d do it, too.
“Just like anyone who as an 8-year-old eagerly watched the moon landings on the black and white television . . . yes, I would love to fly in space,” Collicott said.
Count Purdue President France Córdova, herself a former NASA chief scientist, in that same crowd.
“I’d love to be a passenger on Starship 2, when the price comes down,” she said. “I hope many people will soon be able to view the Earth from space; it would give us a whole new perspective.”
Those who buy a ticket can expect to report to the Spaceport for at least three or four days of training and preparation before taking their flight. Their ticket entitles them to that training, all the required clothing, food and beverages. They must pay extra for their own transportation to New Mexico and for the cost of bringing a friend or family member.
Because it may not be possible to take your own stuff on board, Virgin Galactic plans to record the experience with a combination of video and still images that will be given to the customer after the trip.
For Sammann, a trip to space will be more than just a chance to show a video at family gatherings. For this former military pilot who also flew jets for TWA, it would be finishing a dream he’s had for many years.
After he graduated from Indiana University in 1963, he joined the U.S. Navy flight program and ended up flying C-130s in Vietnam. In 1968, he joined TWA and flew domestic routes out of Chicago and Kansas City until he left in 1985 to run the family business, which led to his success in reading glasses.
“Leading up to the Apollo program, while I was in flight training down in Pensacola, in pre-flight they used us to help find a cure for space (motion sickness) for the astronauts,” Sammann recalled. “I was too young then to be considered for astronaut training.
“But now it is definitely on my bucket list.”