Next stop on our Virgin Galactic itinerary was a visit to the Mojave Desert in California, where both Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company’s build and testing operations are located.
After driving out from LA we met up with the VG team (who were feeling like family by this stage) and some of the future astronauts we’d been in New Mexico last week, as well as others we hadn’t met previously. We started off with a tour of the area to learn a little about it’s rich history in aviation and space development. The Mojave Air and Space Port serves as the base for a huge amount of flight testing and space industry development. In terms of our visit one of the most exciting was hearing about and seeing the replica of Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne, which conducted the first privately funded human sub-orbital flight on June 21, 2004.
In addition to the state of the art, ground breaking testing and development activities going on in the area, it’s also home to an aircraft boneyard where old aircraft are scrapped or refurbished which makes for an interesting juxtaposition!
Everyone was up bright and early for our day visiting The Spaceship Company and Virgin Galactic, learning more about the technology that has gone into creating the spaceship and meeting many of the team responsible.
It’s photos from the outside only as what goes on inside is understandably under tight wrap, and our first stop was at The Spaceship Company.
Here we met the team who are literally building the spaceships, firstly the recently launched VSS Unity and now working on another two sister craft. Hearing about the materials used and seeing the enormous tools or moulds used to create the components of the spacecraft was absolutely fascinating, and meeting the people responsible for leading the teams in each of the areas gave a great insight into the calibre of the people who’ve been drawn to this relatively remote location by the opportunity to work on this exciting project.
From there we headed out into the desert to view the rocket launch test site and meet the team out there before heading to Virgin Galactic’s FAITH (Final Assembly Integration and Test Hangar) facility to see not only VSS Unity but White Knight II. There was a tangible sense of awe as we saw the aircraft that will actually take us into space, and the number of people working on and around them extracting every piece of data and information possible from its recent debut flight test really highlighted how advanced the program now is.
Virgin Galactic run regular ‘lunch and learn’ sessions for their team, and we had the great privilege to be part of this today. All of the Future Astronauts present had the chance to introduce ourselves to the people who are doing all of the testing programs and designing the flight experience, and talk about what had led us to the program. The team then had the chance to ask us questions, which included things like what we most wanted to achieve from our experience, and how we wanted to celebrate our return from space! It was great to have the chance to thank them personally for the fantastic work they were doing which was allowing us to live out our dream – interestingly they were just as grateful in return, as they said if it wasn’t for us buying tickets they wouldn’t have the opportunity to work on what they viewed as the project of a lifetime.
We had to be dragged away to head to the renowned Voyager Café for lunch but were promised there was not only a return visit coming after lunch but something that was also going to be a trip highlight.
We definitely weren’t disappointed, after we got to have carefully positioned photos taken with the spaceship by VG’s photographer, it was time to head to the simulator! We all crowded around while the senior pilot who’s previous experience included commanding the Space Shuttle, took us all on the journey to space that we would experience, albeit being over Mojave rather than New Mexico. After virtually cutting loose from the mothership we headed on our virtual ascent to space, experiencing it’s inky blackness before the rotation occurred to allow us to visualise the earth below. He talked us through every step of the descent process, and while the experience obviously didn’t include the zero gravity component that the real flight will, or the supersonic speeds and resulting G-force of the ascent and descent, it gave us all a fantastic insight into what the visual experience will be like.
As we exited we were thrilled to see our Polaroids had been added to the Future Astronaut wall (I’m just near Brisbane!), before our experience concluded with being measured up as part of the initial data gather for the customised seats which will ultimately be prepared for our flight.
The last week has been an incredible experience, and it’s been wonderful to meet so many of the fantastic team who are working on this project. They come from a variety of backgrounds, but all have in common not just absolute expertise in their field but a huge level of passion for what they do, which was obvious in every conversation. I’m so grateful to not only have had this amazing week, but to have shared it with Stuart, Sascha and Sam. It’s made the whole trip to space very, very real, and we couldn’t be more excited!