By Margot Roosevelt
When Frank Kavanaugh was a boy, he marveled at the Apollo launches, devoured science fiction and guzzled orange-hued Tang. “The astronauts drank Tang,” he recalls, “and I wanted to be an astronaut.”
For Kavanaugh and other children of the 1960s, “the space race was in the fabric of our lives,” he said. “It was the cool place where people were innovating, exploring, dreaming.”
Today, at age 53, the Aliso Viejo private equity executive is ready to relive the dream – up close.
Kavanaugh, who made a fortune manufacturing explosive-resistant trucks during the Iraq War, is among more than a dozen Orange County residents and nearly 100 Californians who have reserved places on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline.
The Mojave-based company is promising a two-hour trip in a six-passenger rocket, vaulting amateur astronauts 68 miles beyond Earth’s surface. Company news releases tout “an out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience with astounding views of the planet from the black sky of space.”
Tickets cost $250,000 (raised last year from $200,000).
“My kids say, ‘Dad, you’re totally not an astronaut,’ ” Kavanaugh said with a boyish grin. “But in my little brain I am. I believe space is an important part of our future.”
Of some half-dozen private space companies, Virgin Galactic appears to be the furthest along on the tourism path. Founded a decade ago by Richard Branson, the flamboyant British entrepreneur, the company was buoyed five years ago by a $390 million infusion from Aabar Investments, an Abu Dhabi government-owned firm.
The start date, first scheduled for 2007, has been repeatedly postponed. But Branson now says passenger flights will begin by the end of this year, and he will ride in the first rocket with members of his family.
That’s assuming the current engine is powerful enough, future test flights prove successful and the Federal Aviation Administration grants a final license.
CELEBRITIES IN SPACE
So far, Virgin Galactic reports $80 million in ticket sales from 700 would-be passengers in 58 nations. Among the purchasers: Leonardo DiCaprio, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber and the Winklevoss twins, of Facebook fame, who paid in bitcoin.
In the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Lady Gaga poses in a glittery flight suit, claiming “I honestly can’t wait” to perform on a Virgin Galactic spaceship with “a message of love that blasts into the beyond.” (The company “would be delighted to welcome her,” a spokeswoman said, “but we cannot confirm at this point” that she has bought a ticket.)
Orange County’s future passengers include a Fountain Valley medical device inventor who races Formula One cars; a Santa Ana mortgage lending mogul who played a millionaire on “The Real Gilligan’s Island” reality show; and the founder of Irvine’s Center for Living Peace, who was once married to a software magnate.
Ticket-holder David L. Horowitz, former owner of what was once Orange County’s biggest concrete company, Standard Concrete, insists, “It’s not all rich business guys.” At one astronaut gathering, he said, he met a San Diego scientist who had mortgaged her home to buy a ticket.
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