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A Thrilling and Safe Experience

November 06, 2019

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I have a subscription to Air & Space, which is a bimonthly magazine that was first published in 1986 and comes from the Smithsonian. It’s especially relevant this year because this is the 50th Anniversary (1969-2019) of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Neil Armstrong’s first words – as he stepped down onto the soil of Luna were, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind,” as the whole world watched.

The SpaceShip Two rocket plane in Mojave, California

These days all the talk is: When are we going to visit Mars? This is quite a different venture. It takes between 150 and 300 days to get there (slightly over 33 million miles) but NASA is aiming for human missions to this planet in the 2030s. All of this is hair-raising stuff so let’s get down to earth.

SpaceShip Two ignites its rocket shortly after release from its carrier aircraft in Mojave, California

In the August 2019 issue of Air & Space I spotted an intriguing article titled “How to Be a Space Tourist” with a subhead saying, “Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, will train the people who want to fly on SpaceShip Two. Since I’m always on the lookout for women who have fascinating jobs, I sat down and read this piece at once.

Personable, adventurous Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic – Photo courtesy of Air & Space

FIRST: WHAT IS SPACESHIP TWO?

KEY POINTS

  • SpaceShip Two (SS2) is an “air-launched suborbital space-plane-type designed for space tourism.” (No, I don’t really understand it either, but it’s the best I can do right now.)
  • SS2 is made by the Spaceship Company which is a California-based facility owned by Virgin Galactic (this, in turn, is owned by British billionaire, Richard Branson, who has invested in space travel since 2004). A 90-minute flight costs $250,000. Virgin Galactic has received $80 million in deposits from future “astronauts.”
  • In 2018 Branson said that his company, Virgin Galactic, was in a closely fought race with Amazon, the American company owned by Jeff Bezos – to get the first fare-paying passengers into space.

SECOND: WHAT IS AN ASTRONAUT INSTRUCTOR?

  • Beth Moses worked at NASA as an extravehicular activity system manager for the International Space Station (and no, I don’t understand this either, but it’s the best I can do right now). Then she was hired to work at Virgin Galactic.
  • On February 22, 2019 she flew to suborbital space on SpaceShip Two and here’s what she has to say to fellow travelers, “On launch day, you’ll arrive around sunrise with your fellow ‘astronauts.’” (I’m a night person, that would stop me right there.)
  • “You’ll take your seat and check your comm.” (Don’t ask.) “Then you get comfortable. The cabin is roomy and bright, with 17 large windows. The mother ship will take off from the runway, like a regular airplane and carry you up to launch altitude, where you’ll hear a countdown: 3, 2, 1, release.” (Here’s where I faint.) “You’ll freefall for a moment.” (No I won’t. I’m already on the floor.) “Then the rocket motor lights and you are pushed backwards in your seat as SuperSonic Two goes supersonic.” (Every hair on my head is standing straight up.)
  • “The cabin turns murky purple as you leave the atmosphere and then you are lying on your back riding a rocket going up and up. The motor stops and everything is silent. You are now weightless! You can unbuckle, float around and find your favorite window while the spacecraft coasts upward until it reaches apogee.” (Don’t ask.)
  • “You can see the curve of the earth – the sky is darker than black. Slowly you begin to descend. You are asked to float back to your seat as the ship enters the atmosphere.” (Here’s where I make the sign of the cross.) The sky turns blue and you glide back to the same runway you launched from.”
  • I’ll head for the nearest bar and order a Galaxy Shooter à la the Tipsy Bartender.

CLICK HERE to hear Sinatra sing Fly Me to the Moon

Shaun Nelson-Henrick



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