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Indian for space tour
- Keralite books seat on Virgin Galactic voyage

Thiruvananthapuram, March 14: Many may think Rs 90 lakh to be a tad too high for a 75-mile trip, but Santhosh Kulangara George has already paid a tenth of it to book his seat two years in advance.

What got the seasoned traveller, who has done 50 countries, hooked is that the 75 miles are across neither land nor sea — but straight up.

The 38-year-old Keralite may become the first Indian space tourist sometime in late 2008 or early 2009, when Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson’s Virgin Airlines, kicks off commercial space travel.

Santhosh, who publishes learning material for high-school students, has received a letter from company president Will Whitehorn confirming his status as a “Virgin Galactic Voyager”.

The company “secures you a seat on board our sub-orbital space flights. I am pleased to confirm that you have been allocated Voyager reservation No 38”, Whitehorn wrote to Santhosh, who also runs a TV travel programme on a Malayalam channel.

The letter would make Santhosh the envy of leading physicist Stephen Hawking, who revealed his ambition to travel to space a few months ago, adding: “Maybe Richard Branson will help me.”

Breaking governments’ monopoly on space flights is a dream shared by Branson and US aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who designed the path-breaking SpaceShipOne that made three space flights in 2004, winning the $10-million X Prize awarded to spur commercial space travel.

Santhosh will fly to Paris on May 21 on Virgin Galactic’s invitation for a get-together of those with confirmed reservation.

“I had sent in my request as far back as 2004,” said Santhosh, managing director of Labor India Publications, which produces textbook supplementary material for students.

As part of his TV programme Sancharam, he has travelled widely, shooting all by himself and presenting more than 250 episodes. He will be taking his camera aboard SpaceShipTwo.

The spacecraft will travel 400,000 feet (about 120 km or 75 miles) above Earth’s surface, higher than the internationally recognised definition of (outer) space at 100 km (62 miles or 328,084 ft). The US definition, however, puts outer space at 80 km (50 miles), beyond which a traveller becomes an astronaut.

The two-and-a-half-hour flight will cost Santhosh an estimated $200,000 (Rs 88.4 lakh). The spaceship will detach from the mother ship at 50,000 ft, the cruise altitude of Concorde, and reach the maximum speed of 4,800 kmph, four times the speed of sound, at approximately 90 seconds into the flight.

Santhosh has no fears relating to safety. The Nasa space shuttle, Columbia, that was carrying Kalpana Chawla was made of metal, he said, whereas his spaceship is made of a composite material.

That is why “there’s no significant heat build-up during re-entry (and) these spacecraft are effectively immune from accidents caused by flight control systems during re-entry”.

“It’s not merely the fantasy of travelling into space, feeling zero gravity and seeing the globe from above that thrilled me. I can take my camera on board and cover the space journey, besides gaining access to Virgin Galactic footage,” he said.

Santhosh has been travelling extensively after his post-graduation in journalism. He lives in Kottayam with wife Soncy, daughter Sharika, aged eight, and one-and-a-half-year-old son George.

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