Virgin Galactic's first test passenger spent part of her flight Feb. 22 "spidermanning along the ceiling" as the VSS Unity spacecraft successfully soared to a peak altitude that some say brought the vessel into space itself.
Astronaut trainer Beth Moses, along with pilots Dave Mackay and Michael "Sooch" Masucci, made it to an altitude of 55.87 miles (89.9 kilometers), higher than Virgin Galactic's historic Dec. 13 flight that reached beyond the U.S. Air Force-defined boundary of space for the first time. Both flights are still below the Karman line of 62 miles (100 km) that the International Astronautical Federation defines as the start of space.
"The heart of the evaluation was obviously the in-flight microgravity portion," Moses says in a video interview from Virgin. "So, once the rocket motor cut off," she continues, "they cleared me to unstrap from my seat, and I unstrapped from my seat, evaluated various aspects of the cabin, and then strapped back in for entry. And it all went smoothly and just according to timeline."
Moses was careful in her evaluation, she recalls while standing in front of VSS Unity. She started with a quick float out of the seat toward the window, marveling briefly at the "clear, clear view" below her. Then she strapped back in, to make sure the safety belt still worked. Once reassured, she unbuckled herself once more to see how the cabin rotated around her, then floated over to the windows optimized for apogee — the top altitude of the Virgin flight on its suborbital path.
"[It] was silent and beautiful and clear, and I was quite happy to be near the cockpit with our pilots, to celebrate apogee," she says. "And we all sort of marveled at how magic it was."
Moses' last test was, to paraphrase her words, flying like Spider-Man along the ceiling, then checking out the back of the spacecraft, before strapping in for a normal re-entry.
On the phenomenal view below her: "It was so clear!" Moses says. "It was crystal, crystal clear. Just super, super, super high def[inition]. And interestingly, you could sort of see ice crystals right out the window, and then the beautiful curvature of the Earth. It was so black in space and so clear and bright, especially with snow in the mountains. You could see the Pacific Ocean, see the southwestern United States. I felt like I was infinitely high. It was just beautiful. It was the most amazing thing."
While Moses was the first "passenger," there are hundreds more waiting for the same experience. There's a lineup of people who paid $250,000 apiece. But first among them is Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who has said he hopes to fly on July 16, 2019. That date marks the 50th anniversary of the flight of Apollo 11, the first mission to bring humans to the surface of the moon.
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