Sierra County was at the forefront of history Sunday morning, July 11 when Virgin Galactic sent Spaceship Two, VSS Unity into space carrying two pilots and four mission specialists in the first commercial space venture. It launched from Spaceport America, located 20 miles outside of Truth or Consequences on the northern edge of the White Sands Missile Range.
As guests and media from around the world gathered at the facility, the entire flight team, pilots and crew, along with technicians and ground support worked feverishly, finalizing preparations for the launch. Overnight weather delayed rolling out the spacecraft by 90 minutes. Originally scheduled for 7:00 a.m. (MST), it was delayed until 8:30 a.m.
The space vehicle, Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two, VSS Unity is held slung between the two fuselages of a purpose-built carrier aircraft, dubbed VMS Eve, named after Virgin Galactic founder and guiding force, Sir Richard Branson’s mother. The carrier aircraft carries Unity to an altitude of nearly 50,000 feet where it is disengaged from the carrier craft and its own rocket engine take over, carrying it upward to its target altitude of 53 miles above Earth. The flight was the 22nd for the Unity craft, its fourth trip into space, the others being lower altitude test flights.
While Unity is designed to carry eight people, two pilots and six passengers, there were six aboard for Sunday’s launch. The four mission specialists were: Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations. Her task was to evaluate conduct of research. This involved an experiment from the University of Florida requiring handheld fixation tubes, activated at various points in the flight.
Colin Bennett, Lead Operations Engineer at Virgin Galactic, evaluating cabin equipment, procedures and the experience during the boost phase and weightless environment inside Unity.
Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, assigned to evaluate the private astronaut experience. He received the same training and preparation as future ticket-buying astronauts will receive. Also tasked with exploring ways of enhancing the customer experience.
Beth Moses, Chief Astronaut Instructor at Virgin Galactic, served as cabin lead and test director in space, charged with overseeing the safe execution of the test flight objectives. Moses was the only one of the four who had launched on Unity before.
The two pilots for the flight were: Chief Pilot David Mackay, Virgin Galactic's chief pilot. MacKay, a former decorated Royal Air Force test pilot, was born and raised in Scotland. He flew for Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airlines before joining Virgin Galactic. He has flown over 11,000 hours in over 100 different vehicles, two years ago becoming the 596th person to go into outer space.
Michael “Sooch” Masucci, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, joined Virgin Galactic in 2013. He has racked up over 9,000 flying hours in 70 different types of airplanes and gliders over more than 30 years as both a civilian and military pilot.
About an hour before launch time, pilots and crew had their walk-out from the main Spaceport departure lounge and into Land Rovers, one for each of the six, and headed to the craft, at the far end of the tarmac.
The Unity 22 Mission launch came off without a hitch. The carrier aircraft took Spaceship Two upward in a slow climb until at nearly 50,000 feet the final checks were performed, and Unity separated, ignited its rocket engine and headed upward. Designed to reach an altitude of nearly 70 miles, the Sunday mission target was 53 miles, which it reached in minutes, traveling at over 2,300 mph or a bit over three times the speed of sound.
The entire mission took a little over an hour and a half. Unity touched down on the 12,000-foot-long runway and discharged its passengers to their land vehicles. On the stage area outside the main buildings each of the four passengers received their “Astronaut Wings,” with Sir Richard Branson being named Astronaut Number One.
It began as a vision in the 1990’s of what the future could hold, then into the 2000’s when discussions and planning began to build a Spaceport in Sierra County. Over the years since then, time and talent, skills, resources and imagination have come together with dedication focus and purpose all building toward that Sunday morning launch.
Since 2008, when Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic became the anchor tenant of Spaceport America one goal has been to design, build and successfully launch a reusable vehicle capable of carrying passengers into space.
On Sunday, July 11, history was made and a giant step into the future taken, and it happened in Sierra County, New Mexico, our home.