Dubai: It has been a long wait, of over 14 years, for traveller, media personality and entrepreneur Santhosh George Kulangara. But he feels that the interactions and experiences during the waiting period was as good as the promise of being one of the first to be on a flight to the edge of space.
Kulangara is one of the 600 people who signed up for the space tourism project by Virgin Galactic. On July 11, the founder of Virgin Group and Virgin Galactic, 71-year-old Richard Branson successfully completed the company’s first ever space flight with a 5-member crew on board. After this success, the first commercial flights carrying the early ticket holders, including Kulangara, are expected to start in early 2022.
And if a common man can fly to space, I should be the first person from India to go to space because I have taken travel as a profession
Kulangara is best known for his detailed video travelogues from his trips to over 130 countries. Initially screened as episodes as part of the show Sanchaaram (translates to journey in Malayalam) on Asianet, Kulangara now has his own channel called Safari TV. It was on one of his trips, in 2006, that Kulangara signed up to be a space tourist.
A train trip and a $250,000 ticket to space
Talking about how he first came to know about space tourism with Virgin, Kulangara said “I was on a train from London to Glasgow, on a private train of Virgin Group itself…”
“On the train some passenger left behind a newspaper, which I picked up and started reading. I found a curious news that Richard Branson, the owner of that very train, was planning a new venture that could take the common man to space. He had named it space tourism.”
“It was exciting news for me. This would mean anyone can travel [to space], he need not be a scientist or a technician or a fighter pilot… And [I thought] if a common man can fly to space, I should be the first person from India to go to space because I have taken travel as a profession. I thought I should be travelling for all Indians, to show, and share with them the experience.”
When he returned from the UK, Kulangara emailed the Virgin office in London informing them of his interest and explaining his background. In two days, he got a call from senior Virgin executives in London, and they had two to three long conversations.
“They explained what it is, what are the risk elements, and about how passionate I am… That was their first question, and I said it is not myself alone travelling… over one billion people would be travelling with me, Virgin will become a household name in India by the time I travel. So [I said], I will show them the experience of space travel, and they will enjoy space travel from their living room.”
In 2007, Kulangara was officially on the list and had included in his contract that he would take his own video equipment on the flight to document the one-of-a-kind trip. The ticket cost was US$250,000, over Dh918,248. The first 600 tickets sold by Virgin Galactic went for between $200,000 and $250,000 each, but the company has warned that the cost for future sales will go up.
Training and experience
Even though being a space tourist doesn’t have physical or training requirements as rigorous as astronauts, there is still some training involved. Kulangara did two training so far and this isn’t included in the ticket price.
He said, “I had my first training of zero gravity training at the Kennedy Space Centre, Florida…Me and 12 other trainees flew in aircraft designed to give the zero gravity experience.”
“It is a parabolic flight, it will take off and drop repeatedly, and every drop it creates a zero-gravity inside the aircraft. We had 40-50 drops and by the end of it we were all exhausted but it was a great experience, because we never knew what it would feel like. It was as if we were flying like a piece of cotton…”
“It was a wonderful experience but after it everyone also had a wonderful vomiting session…,” he laughed.
The second training was at the NASA centre in Philadelphia for G-tolerance or gravity tolerance which was tougher, Kulangara explained.
“It’s not just the space travel that’s exciting. Every moment of training, every get-together was special. Every time we would meet up, we would interact with great people like Richard Branson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and other Hollywood celebrities – in all our get-togethers, we would meet these celebrities. And we were a small group – we were just maybe a maximum of 200 people, we knew each other. So we would get enough time to interact.”
“Interacting with these kind of people is also an opportunity. That is also a profit or a benefit of this ticket, not just the space travel, but to have an interaction and association with these people and learn from them. These are the highlights of this space travel,” Kulangara added.
As of now the date of his flight to space has not been announced yet, but Kulangara expects it will not be far now.
The journey of ‘Sanchaaram’
It wasn’t easy for Kulangara to sell the idea of his video travelogues, especially during a time where there were no travel influencers and social media vloggers yet. After a degree in media, he wanted to be in the television industry and he started his career there.
Kulangara said, “But soon I realised that the conventional TV serials, documentaries, telefilms and all couldn’t excite me. That is not what I wanted. Then I thought what else I could do… I am always looking for something new…”
“Then I thought of my childhood days when we would have frequents tours across South India. My parents were teachers and they would travel with their students to different destinations in South India. So that passion was in me and I thought of starting a television show based on travel. A lot of travel shows were there but they all picturised places with words and letters.”
“The present medium was television. So with a camera I could share the views, the experience, the food, the culture with the viewers and they could enjoy the experiences from their living room,” he added.
“At that time it was a difficult task, we would have to carry huge cameras, we would need to take a lot of technicians with us. But I found a solution for that by acquiring all the technology which a television crew required so that I could do all the work of different technicians alone, myself.”
Planning this out, Kulangara said he found a way to travel solo, and bring back videos from the places he visited for viewers.
Family support and money to start
When he pitched the idea, Kulangara’s parents were clear about one thing. He said, “My parents had already stated that if you’re going on your own ways you have to find the fund for that yourself and we wouldn’t give you money.”
“So I made my own money from other activities, small businesses, and of course programs produced for Doordarshan, borrowed some money from my friends, that’s how I started the program.”
“They were definitely anxious about my future in this industry and as a television program maker…”, he added.
However, his family never disapproved of Kulangara’s interest in travel because the family had a love for travelling.
Lack of opportunities
His first trip for Sanchaaram was in 1997, to Nepal. But it would take another four years for Kulangara to get a TV show slot on Asianet because most channels at the time refused to believe that weekly travel videos were doable, especially by a single person.
“When I said I would travel around the world and bring you a video every week they couldn’t believe it, they didn’t trust me – they thought even international channels weren’t doing those [solo traveller] kind of videos, so how could a man like me do it?“ Kulangara said.
Kulangara said he didn’t even get many opportunities to pitch the idea because of this attitude from many channels and he added, “I was not so confident to talk to them after this.”
In 2001, Asianet agreed to take his videos when they launched Asianet Global. Kulangara added, “Even then, they never thought would continue with it. But I continued with it, for 12 years on Asianet with Sanchaaram. By that time it was a hit, everyone accepted the program. Asianet also didn’t want me to leave, but I had already decided to start my own channel.”
In 2013, Kulangara started his own channel called Safari– a channel dedicated to exploration and travel and to this day, free from any advertisements.
Kulangara and his family is best known for the Labour India group of establishments. Started by his father, George Kulangara, in 1983 the group started out as a publisher of educational journals and magazines ranging from the primary level to the higher secondary level courses. The group also has a school in Kottayam, Kerala called the Labour India Gurukulam International Residential School and Junior College.
Now, Santhosh George Kulangara is the Managing Director of the Labour India group and under his leadership, Labour India Publications Ltd. was transformed into Labour India Educational Research Centre which produces 30 educational journals. The company website says these journals have over 1.6 million readers.
Unique heritage resort, production studio
On an island that he owns on the Vembanadu lake near Cochin, Kulangara has successfully built a unique ‘heritage village’. He chose historically significant buildings between 100 and 250 years old from across Kerala, then uprooted the structures and rebuilt them on the island. It was briefly managed as a resort but Kulangara said in a recent interview that he would no longer be continuing that and was instead focusing on making it a place people could come visit for free or hold events for payment to cover the upkeep of the village.
The other project that is in the final stages is his 50,000 sq. feet production studio named the Safari Imagination Studio.
Kulangara said, “The entire visual media industry is my playground. So I am thinking bigger now. Now augmented reality and virtual reality are emerging. So television will grow that way and will merge with film, multimedia etc. For that we need better studios to create beautiful visual effects, and technology has to lead that.”
He added, “Construction is over and I am handling the final stages of the studio… It is ready for operations now. Just after the COVID-19 lockdown, we think we can inaugurate the studio.”