Olivia Koski brought the Intergalactic Travel Bureau – first launched at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich in 2011 – to a disused shopfront in Manhattan this summer. She tells us about the lows, but mostly the highs, of selling trips to outer-space to gruff New Yorkers…

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Mark contemplates the cosmos at the Bureau’s Manhattan debut…

This July, a new business opened up on the corner of 37th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, New York. From 11 am until 8pm each day, The Intergalactic Travel Bureau provided free consultations to passersby who wished to envision their dream space vacation. There is nothing more difficult than trying to give away free stuff on the sidewalks of New York City, as our team quickly learned on our first day, after hearing countless curt replies of “No” upon asking “Interested in a vacation to the Moon?” while handing out free travel postcards from destinations such as the Moon, Mars, Pluto, and Jupiter.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and this is the toughest corner in Manhattan,” our friend The Metro PCS Guy told us. He was promoting cell phones for the store next door to The Bureau, and we weren’t quite sure whether cell phones or space vacations were a tougher sell. Each day we refined our methods of persuasion, and managed to entice a steady stream of both eager and confused visitors.

But the stars eventually aligned at 266 West 37th Street for an experience that was out of this world. We were funded by the American Physical Society, and our storefront location was donated by Chashama, a local arts organization that provides spaces for artists to create.We got hold of some fantastic vintage-style space travel posters from Steve Thomas, whose art, which lies at the intersection of astronomy and propaganda, was the perfect fit for our office.

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Visitors unable to book a real space vacation could take a virtual tour of the universe with Hanno Rein’s ExoPlanet App, which we projected from a laptop controlled with hand gestures enabled by a device called the Leap. Of course everyone was encouraged to send a postcard from space based on designs from Steve Thomas.

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The press took notice, and our pop-up office was featured in  The New Yorker, Boing Boing, The Verge, and on the national radio program The Takeaway. We handed out thousands of postcards and sat down with hundreds of people from all walks of life to discuss the challenges of distant space travel, the realities of space tourism, and the wonders of the universe.

Eight professional scientists (Jana Grcevich, GS’s own Mark Rosin, Hanno Rein, Renée Hlozek, Josh Peek, Lucianne Walkowicz, Viviana Acquaviva, Or Graur) and two graduate students (Juan Camilo Ibañez and Steven Mohammed) donated time to staff the Bureau. Mitra Kaboli, Kaitlin Prest, Mark Gilman and Dave Mosher were our sidewalk buskers, and Liz Stephens served as our voiceover artist (featured in this video). Special thanks go to Jana Grcevich from the American Museum of National History, who helped with planning and was at The Bureau almost every day wearing a chic hat.

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As for the clients, they were a diverse crowd. We served a homeless man, the fashionistas from local design firms (we were located smack dab in the middle of the Fashion District), and a guy who came in ready for his free astrology consultation and marched straight out when we told him we only dealt in astronomy. We entertained the truckers stuck in traffic on 37th Street, and put reluctant smiles on the faces of many a hardened New Yorker who stopped to gaze at our spectacle, if only for a moment.

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A lovely woman looking for a relaxing getaway on earth became confused five minutes into her consultation. She was looking for a trip to the Bahamas, not one to the sulfur beaches of Mercury. Some came from far away after hearing about us on the radio, or from their friends. Others had been walking by and couldn’t not investigate what “The Intergalactic Travel Bureau” was all about. Many returned for second consultations, dragging along friends and loved ones.

A man brought his young daughter on the weekend to plan her dream space vacation, and then took her up to the planetarium at The American Museum of Natural History to make her dream come true (as best he could). Others came just to spend quality time with astronomers. One man brought a friend with a question that had been haunting him for decades: through a translator, he asked about an event that took place in his village in Southeastern Iran one evening twenty years ago when it seemed the Moon filled half of the sky and then suddenly disappeared (most likely a meteor, we told him). And our very last client was a woman from Mali who asked if we had heard about the Dogan people, who according to myth are descended from ancient amphibious visitors from the star system Sirius. It was a mysterious end to an incredible 10 day marathon of space travel planning.

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Follow the project on Twitter and Facebook and see all the pics of the ITB in Manhattan on our Flickr site here!