GOLDEN, Colo.– After witnessing the initial surge of public interest in suborbital space tourism that followed the successful flight of the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne three years ago, officials at Virgin Galactic thought the pace of paid reservations might slow down in 2007 – particularly since SpaceShipTwo is not slated to launch before late 2009 at the earliest.

They needn’t have worried.

“In the last quarter, we have doubled the number of bookings taken on the same time last year,” said Carolyn Wincer, head of astronaut
sales for Virgin Galactic. Wincer said the company had thought that interest might drop for a while until the new spaceship was rolled out.

“However, this is not the case at all,” she said. “As word gets around that you can make a reservation now, people are keen to secure a place. Even better, uptake is in line with our ‘best case scenario’ from our original business plan … meaning that the price point and estimates of interest that we projected ourselves, and based on market research, are so far proving to be correct.”

So in the big picture, Wincer says the strong public interest is “good news for all space enthusiasts and for the industry as a whole.”

Initially, Virgin Galactic spaceflights will operate from the Mojave Spaceport in Mojave, Calif. – home of Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipOne and where SpaceShipTwo is now coming together.

The Spaceship Co., a joint venture announced in July 2005 between Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, has contracted Scaled Composites to design and build SpaceShipTwo and the carrier mothershipWhiteKnight Two.

SpaceShipTwo is being designed to accommodate six passengers. It is scheduled to be unveiled before the end of 2007 and will be named Virgin SpaceShip Enterprise.

Virgin Galactic will own and operate at least five of the new spaceships and two motherships. The spaceline operator has established a set payment of $200,000 per seat, with a minimum refundable deposit of $20,000 to make a reservation.

Wincer said 200 customers from 30 different countries already have made deposits to confirm their reservations. What you get for your $200,000 includes three days of pre-flight preparation, bonding and training on site at the spaceport.

Fresh statistics from Wincer show some interesting trends.

The country that is home to the largest number of ticket buyers is the United States, followed by the United Kingdom, Japan, Russia, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Spain and Ireland. In terms of the proportion of Virgin Galactic customers per capita, the top three countries are New Zealand, Ireland and Denmark.

Of the customers who have signed up so far, 15 percent are female, Wincer’s statistics show. Ten percent of total customers booked through a travel agent, but 30 percent of the bookings have been received via Virgin Galactic’s “Accredited Space Agents” (ASAs) – an initiative launched in January, Wincer said. ASAs are registered travel agents who have been specially selected and fully trained on all aspects of the Virgin Galactic offering.

Accredited Space Agents can now be found in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Agents and the consultants who work with them are being trained the week of July 9 in Vancouver. Agency representatives and consultants from Austria, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Israel, Italy, Portugal, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom, also will be trained in Vancouver.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...