On February 22, Virgin Galactic's passenger plane VSS Unity took to the sky above the Mojave desert in California during a test flight with a rider who never had before. On board the vehicle was Beth Moses, the first passenger Unity has ever flown. Along with the aircraft's two pilots, the trio climbed to a height of 55.85 miles (89.9 kilometers) – what many consider to be the beginning of space.
The short flight qualified Moses for commercial astronaut swings from the Federal Aviation Administration. And that means she is now the first woman to fly into space on a commercial vehicle.
After the groundbreaking test flight, we got Moses to learn how it was to see the Earth's curvature and experience weightlessness in real space. We also wanted to know how to use this flight to improve Virgin Galactic's future customer experience. The company, which promises quick flights to the edge of space, has sold hundreds of tickets at VSS Unity to paying customers. And as chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, Moses is responsible for training hopeful passengers for the flight she just experienced.
This interview has been easily edited for clarity.
I understand that you have a lot of experience already with zero flying. What had your training been up to this previous flight?
Before I was assigned this flight, I had many years at NASA and five years at Virgin Galactic. And through these two roles, I have done very weightless research on parabolic aircraft and high G-exposure in both aircraft and centrifuges, as well as many extreme environmental tests in the verification of the international space station's hardware. So things like human thermal vacuum testing, pressurized testing, neutral flow testing, type of entire industrial kit for test environments. So it really was the background that made it possible for me to quickly train for this site. So when I went into this flight, I took with me that kind of experience.
What did it mean when you found out that you were going on the flight?
I was very happy. [Laughs]
What did your training mean to get ready for this mission?
I'm the astronaut instructor in Virgin Galactic, so part of the flight was testing the training program our customers will enjoy. And it was great fun! It was kind of the best of both worlds as far as I was concerned, because I was able to build a good test in line with what I have done in my career earlier and train myself to do it test together with the help of some experts here on Galactic, like our pilots and our medical staff.
And of course, our customers will not be trained to do any particular test or task they will only be able to enjoy themselves. But it was a good mix of utilizing my past, getting a good test done and then starting to look at the future for how it would be best and most fun to train our customers.
Can you go into the details of what the test meant?
I looked at the customer regulations in the cottage and our pilots flew so true that I could pedal when we got to space, so I could leave my place. Part of what I looked at was how to get out of your place and get back to your place. So I fought my seat, not just once, but twice to test it.
And then I also went to different areas of the cottage at specific times in the flight profile to find out where it is best to be in the cottage, how the view is, how the cottage moved about you. Because when you are out of your place, the vehicle still moves. And I looked at things like our colors and finishes, and how it works together to provide a truly seamless space experience. I had a strict timeline on where to be and what to evaluate and how to do it.
What went through your mind before you came to weightlessness, during the drip and then climb to space?
I remember clearly, during the climb to space, just thinking that we would go so clean up. In fact, I said so. Most of my evaluations were in camera, and I continued to say "Up! We're still going up; we're still up!" And I was very excited. It was just incredible.
What went through my mind was that Dave [Mackay] flies straight, which was noticeable to me. Because in our simulations here in the pilot simulator, I can see the horizon as the ship kind of, you know, becomes a little when you are in space. But in the real flight, the vehicle never rotated at all because Dave is flying so true. And I didn't get a glimpse of the horizon. So it was just plain, clean black right away. I felt like I was in space the minute we trusted the rocket engine. It was just incredible. I loved it.
Describe me the experience of being in space. We all saw the picture of you staring out the window in complete reverence.
It was just magical and almost indescribable.
I felt very happy to fly where I did and the day I did. I felt like the earth was so beautiful, but even more so than you can describe or imagine. I happened to fly on a day where we had snow on the mountains in the southwestern US. And I remember living the look of glittering white mountain peaks and the blue Pacific and Earth's green. I told someone the second day I felt the earth was wearing the diamonds for us that day, because it was so glittering and sharp.
It just took my breath. It was amazing. I hope everyone can see it.
It's so funny that you say it, because when I talked to Virgin Galactic pilot Mark "Forger" Stucky, he said the same thing. He was surprised at how sharp it was. It was like an HD screen for him.
Absolutely, and it was so noticeable. And I thought I felt infinitely high. You know that the earth was so bent and the sea was so massive. I felt like we were just tuned to this god's eye on the world. It was just sharp and beautiful.
I often hear that when talking to astronauts. They have this overview effect. Do you feel that you have a changed perspective now that you have seen the world from the high?
I think it will settle over time. I feel much more connected to myself and the people around me and the planet Earth. I am one of those glass-half-full, people-are-good, earth-is-lovely kind of people. And I feel it even more now.
I guess the biggest thing that happened in the last week or so is that I have relaxed the minutiae of life on a big way. Bottom line is, after my spaceflight, I am so much more relaxed and so much more optimistic about humanity in the future. I do not know if it is the review effect, and there really was no form of miraculous epiphony. It was just a slow dawning of reality.
But I'm very grateful for that and thankful for the flight. And I think the more people who see it, the better we all will be.
Because of your experience – and what you felt and did in the cottage – how should you use it to shape future astronaut training? What are some specific ways that you hope to train this training in the future?
As a particular specific example, one thing I had not expected was that there are ice crystals on the back of the rocket nozzle that flicker out when you get to space. And I had never consciously heard or noticed it. I think it has probably been registered and entered debriefs, but it had not taken my ear before. And one thing that caught my eye out of the window was this little ice floating past the window. And I want to make sure our customers know they expect it and that's normal. It is not a small piece of the ship coming. It's just ice from the rocket nozzle.
I can now take my first-hand experience and say "Hey, you will mark it out the window. It is beautiful. It will get your eye. You might wonder what it is. It's just a piece of ice. normally. Enjoy it. "
Then the other thing I'm going to do is take the timing of the video. One of the reasons I came twice and came back to my place twice was to get a very good understanding of exactly how long it took and how it was done to be able to roll into training. For example, when should people start going back to their places? It is a very valid question. We have tested it on the ground, and we tested it in parabolic aircraft, but we have never done it for real in space in our ship.
And how many times will you fly again? Should other employees join you too?
Of course I would love to fly again. But our goal is to enable many, many people to fly. And it's not just my own opinion of the cottage and the procedures that are important. It is also other people's views. So we continue in our flight program to put people in the cottage to evaluate the cottage. I don't really know what the plans are, if I myself can be one or not.
I want as many people as possible to see and feel what I saw and felt, because it really is magical.
What does this flight mean to you personally? You are now the first woman to fly into space on a new vehicle. How does it feel to have this title?
I'm really proud to be part of this industry. I have been a space engineer for my entire career, and it feels good to do a job that is also important to me. And I believe that any of all professions or professional backgrounds can be part of the aviation industry. So I welcome everyone. I think there is room for everyone.
I'm not so terribly special. I mean, people have asked me that question before, and that is a difficult one, because I simply do my job to my best ability. I consider myself an engineer who does a job. I don't think the engineers come in pink or blue. I think we're just engineers. I think we just solve the problem.
How do you know, say a young girl who looked at your flight and wants to do what you do? Do you feel it might have some impact on little girls with big dreams?
Oh, absolutely. I hope our flight and my participation in the flight encourage everyone who wants to be part of the industry. Because this industry is very welcoming to everyone, I hope everyone will see the flight and want to participate if they are so inclined.