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Rochester travelers to be among first space tourists

Rochester's Chris Wilmot poses with the Virgin Galactic spacecraft, which will propel him into space...some day (WHAM photo)

With the words, "One small step for mankind," astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface of the moon.

Those steps also left a lasting impression on a little boy who was just seven years old.

"I was one of those kids watching," said Christopher Wilmot, who said he later became intrigued with all things space. "I was watching Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey. My interest in space and sci-fi peaked early."

Now, Wilmot is one of 700 people with a ticket to leave Earth's atmosphere aboard an aircraft that will carry everyday people as tourists into space.

While some families are planning a Disney vacation this summer, a handful of travelers in Rochester are setting their sights a bit higher. They're making plans to travel 67 miles straight upward and into space.

Travel agent Craig Curran, who's selling the trip, has an answer for what you're probably thinking.

"We're actually creating a whole new industry," Curran told 13WHAM's Jane Flasch. "It's not a matter of if, but when."

A spaceship named "Unity" already exists. It launches aboard a mother ship named White Knight to 50,000 feet. From there, it is cut loose and propelled by a rocket-fueled engine to three and a half times the speed of sound. This allows it to break through the atmosphere.

For about six minutes, the civilian astronauts will unlock from their seats to experience zero gravity.

"At that point, you'll uncouple from your seat, float around the cabin, do somersaults and experience something that only 500 humans have ever done before you," described Curran.

The civilian astronauts are investors in the $400 million project.

Wilmot paid $200,000 several years ago, but now the price has increased to $250,000. "Without these astronauts, this project doesn't go forward. They're like angel investors in a start-up company," said Curran.

Curran said a handful of Rochester-area people have signed on.

Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airlines, has been working to advance travel tourism for about 10 years now. His new company is Virgin Galactic.

"I am going," he said in a pre-recorded message. "I hope you will join me."

The first flights were supposed to have launched this year. A fiery crash has set the program back - a very real reminder of the potential for danger.

"I toyed with the idea for a little while, and I believe you only live once," Wilmot said. "It's risky, but getting in your car and driving anywhere is risky."

Celebrities including Tom Hanks, Ashton Kutcher, and Leonardo DiCaprio are all rumored to have tickets. Wilmot estimated he is number 550 or 600 on that list. Once the technology is a go, each flight will only carry six passengers.

"I think it will take a little longer than I had hoped for," Wilmot admitted.

Yet, with the promise of a view of the earth against the black backdrop of space, Wilmot suspects this trip will be worth the wait.

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