On February 22nd, Virgin Galactic’s passenger spaceplane VSS Unity took to the skies above the Mojave Desert in California during a test flight, carrying a type of rider it’s never had before. On board the vehicle was Beth Moses, the first passenger the Unity has ever flown. Along with the plane’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 wings from the Federal Aviation Administration. And that means she’s now the first woman to fly to space on a commercial vehicle.
After the groundbreaking test flight, we caught up with Moses to learn about what it was like to see the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness in actual space. We also wanted to know how she will 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 on the VSS Unity to paying customers. And as the chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, Moses will be responsible for training hopeful passengers for the flight she just experienced.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I understand that you have a lot of experience already with zero G flight. What had your training been like, up until this past flight?
Before I was assigned to this flight, I had many years at NASA and five years at Virgin Galactic. And through those two roles, I’ve done a lot of weightless research in parabolic aircraft and high-G exposure in both aerobatic aircraft and centrifuge experience, as well as many extreme environment tests in the verification of the International Space Station hardware. So things like human thermal vacuum testing, pressurized line testing, neutral buoyancy testing, sort of the whole industry suite of test environments. So that was really the background that allowed me to sort of rapidly train for this particular site. So when I went into this particular flight, I brought sort of that wealth of experience with me.
What did it feel like when you found out you would be riding on the flight?
I was very happy. [Laughs]
What did your training entail to get ready for this mission?
I’m the chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, so part of the flight was to test the training program that our customers will enjoy. And it was really fun! It was sort of the best of both worlds as far as I’m concerned, because I was able to construct a good test along the lines of what I’ve done in my career previously, and train myself to do that test, along with the help of some experts here at Galactic, like our pilots and our medical staff.
And of course, our customers won’t be trained to do any particular test or task; they’ll just be able to enjoy themselves. But it was sort of a great mix of leveraging my past, getting a good test done, and then starting to look to the future of how it would be best and most enjoyable to train our customers.
Can you go into the specifics of what the test entailed?
I was looking at the customer provisions in the cabin, and our pilots flew so true that I was able to unstrap when we got to space, so I was able to leave my seat. Part of what I was looking at was how you can best get out of your seat and get back in your seat. So I egressed my seat, not just once, but twice in order to test that.
And then I also went to various areas in the cabin at specific times in the flight profile to figure out where is best to be in the cabin, what the views are like, how the cabin moved about you. Because when you’re out of your seat, the vehicle is still moving. And I was looking at things like our colors and our finishes, and how does it all work together to give a really seamless space experience. I had a strict timeline of where to be, and what to evaluate, and how to do it.
What was going through your mind before you got to weightlessness, during the drop and then the climb to space?
I remember distinctly, during the climb to space, just thinking that we were going so purely up. In fact, I said that. Most of my evaluations were to camera, and I kept saying, “Up! We’re still going up; we’re still going up!” And I was very excited. It was just stupendous.
Also what was going through my mind was that Dave [Mackay] was flying perfectly straight, which was noticeable to me. Because in our simulations here in the pilot simulator, I can see the horizon as the ship sort of, you know, turns a little bit when in space. But in the real flight, the vehicle never rotated at all because Dave was flying so true. And so I didn’t catch a glimpse of the horizon. So it was just pure, pure black right away. I felt like I was in space the minute we lit the rocket motor. It was just unbelievable. I loved it.
Describe to me the experience of being in space. We all saw that picture of you staring out the window in complete awe.
It was just magic and almost indescribable.
I felt very fortunate 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 can be imagined. I happened to fly on a day where we had snow on the mountains in the southwestern United States. And I remember vividly that appearance of glistening white mountaintops and blue Pacific Ocean and the green of the Earth. I told someone the other day I felt like Earth was wearing her diamonds for us that day, because it was so, so glistening and sharp.
It just took my breath away. It was amazing. I hope everyone can see it.
It’s so funny that you say that because when I spoke with Virgin Galactic pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky, he said the same thing. He was surprised at how sharp it was. It was like a high-definition screen for him.
Absolutely, and it was so noticeable. And I thought I felt infinitely high. You know the Earth was so curved and the ocean was so massive. I felt like we were just suspended with this God’s-eye view of the world. It was just sharp and beautiful.
That’s what I often hear when I speak to astronauts. They have this overview effect. Do you feel like you have a changed perspective now that you’ve seen the world from that high up?
I think that’s going to settle in over time. I do feel very much more connected to myself and the people around me and planet Earth. I’m one of those glass-half-full, people-are-good, Earth-is-lovely kind of people. And I feel that even more so now.
I guess the biggest thing that’s happened over the last week or so is that I’ve relaxed about all the minutiae of life in a big way. The bottom line is, after my spaceflight, I am so much more relaxed and so much more optimistic about humanity in the future. I don’t know if that’s the overview effect, and it certainly wasn’t any kind of miraculous epiphany. It was just sort of a slow dawning of reality.
But I’m very grateful for it and grateful for the flight. And I do think that the more people that see it, the better off we will all be.
Based on your experience — and what you felt and did in the cabin — how will you use that to shape future astronaut training? What are some specific ways that you hope to craft that training in the future?
As a very specific example, one thing I had not anticipated was that there are ice crystals on the back of the rocket nozzle that flake off when you get to space. And I had never consciously heard or noticed that. I think it’s probably been recorded and been put in debriefs, but it hadn’t caught my ear before. And one thing that caught my eye out the window was this small bit of ice floating past the window. And I want to make sure that our customers know to expect that and that’s normal. That’s not a little piece of the ship coming off. It’s just ice from the rocket nozzle.
I can now take my first-hand experience and say, “Hey, you guys are going to notice that out the window. It’s beautiful. It’ll catch your eye. You might wonder what it is. It’s just a piece of ice. It’s normal. Enjoy it.”
Then the other thing I will do is take time estimates off of the video. One of the reasons I got out of my seat twice and returned to my seat twice was to get a very good understanding of exactly how long that takes and how that’s been done, in order to be able to roll that into training. For example, when should people start to head back to their seats? It’s a very valid question. We’ve tested that on the ground, and we tested it in parabolic aircraft, but we’ve never done it for real in space in our ship.
And how many times are you going to fly again? Will other employees be going with you, too?
I, of course, would love to fly again. But our aim is to enable many, many people to fly. And it’s not just my own opinion about the cabin and the procedures that matters. It’s other people’s opinions as well. So we will continue in our flight program to put folks in the cabin to evaluate the cabin. I don’t actually know what the plans are, if I myself might be one or not.
I want as many people as possible to see and feel what I saw and felt, because it’s really magic.
What does this flight mean for you personally? You’re now the first woman to fly into space on a commercial vehicle. How does that feel having that title?
I’m really proud to be part of this industry. I’ve been an aerospace engineer for my whole career, and it feels good to do a job that’s important to me as well. And I’m of the opinion that anyone of any profession or any professional background can be part of the aerospace industry. So I welcome everyone. I think there’s a place for everyone.
I don’t hold myself as terribly special. I mean, people have asked me that question before, and it’s an awkward one, because I’m simply doing my job to the best of my ability. I consider myself to be an engineer doing a job. I don’t think engineers come in pink or blue. I think we’re just engineers. I think we just problem solve.
How do you feel about, say, a young girl who watched your flight and would want to do what you do? Do you feel like that maybe has some impact on little girls with big dreams?
Oh, absolutely. I hope that our flight and my participation in the flight encourages anyone that wants to be part of the industry. Because this industry is very welcoming to all, and so I would hope everyone would see the flight and and want to participate if they’re so inclined.