Its taken Virgin Galactic nearly seventeen years to reach today’s milestone of ushering in what many hope will be a new era in tourism, space tourism that is, as Virgin Galactic successfully launched its first fully crewed rocket powered test flight.
While the weather delayed the launch about an hour and half, once the go for launch was given, the crew did the walkout to the Virgin Mothership (VMS) EVE and it really began to sink in what this would mean for all involved. It’s a day Sir Richard Branson and his team have long dreamed of. Though flights are costly and only for the wealthy, the hope is that someday in the future, the not too distant future, the price can be brought down so that millions of people can have an affordable experience of launching into space, seeing the Earth from space, and experiencing zero g.
Takeoff and the ascent to drop altitude went smoothly. Once the VMS EVE neared the 15,000 metres level, the VSS Unity was dropped and its rocket engine kicked in almost right away and it looked exactly as planned.
VSS Unity, with its six crew rocketed to the edge of space, reached an altitude of 86.1 km. That put it officially in space above the FAA and NASA altitude of 80 km. Once there, the crew had about four minutes of zero gravity to perform summersaults and gaze out the windows to see the full majesty of the Earth below them.
Upon safely returning to Spaceport America the party began. That party included a live concert by Khalid, an El Paso, Texas R&B star who released a new single for the occasion called “New Normal.” Also present, and a guest commentator on the Virgin Galactic webcast, was Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who presented each crew members with their commercial astronaut wings.
At one point Richard Branson quoted Bill See saying, “The brave don’t live forever but the cautious don’t live at all. The only thing that’s truly terrifying is the unlived life.” Branson has certainly lived a life full of adventures.
The VSS Unity and VMS EVE crew members were:
- VSS Unity Pilot Dave Mackay: Mackay is Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot and grew up in the highlands of Scotland. He is a former Royal Air Force pilot and flew for Branson’s airline company Virgin Atlantic before joining Virgin Galactic.
- VSS Unity Pilot Michael Masucci: Michael “Sooch” Masucci is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who joined Virgin Galactic in 2013 who racked up over 9,000 flying hours in 70 different types of airplanes and gliders during more than 30 years of civilian and military flight.
- Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic. She will evaluate the human-tended research experience via an experiment from the University of Florida that requires several handheld fixation tubes to be activated at various points in the flight profile.
- Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic. He will evaluate cabin equipment, procedures and the experience during the boost phase and weightless environment inside Unity.
- Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic. Branson will evaluate the private astronaut experience. He will receive the same training, preparation and flight as Virgin Galactic’s future ticket-buying astronauts and use the flight to fine ways to enhance the experience for customers.
- Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic. She will serve as cabin lead and test director in space. Her tasks include overseeing the safe execution of the test flight objectives. Moses has launched on Unity before.
- VMS EVE Pilot Frederick “CJ” Sturckow: A former NASA space shuttle commander who joined Virgin Galactic in 2013 with Masucci. A retired Marine Corps colonel, he was the first NASA astronaut to join the company and flew four space shuttle missions
- VMS EVE Pilot Kelly Latimer: Latimer is a test pilot and retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who joined Virgin Galactic’s pilot corps in 2015. She was the first female research test pilot to join what is now NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.