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Virgin Galactic’s First Test Passenger Receives Commercial Astronaut Wings from US Aviation Regulator

"Commercial human space flight is now a reality,” says Wayne Monteith

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FILE - Virgin Galactic rocket plane, the WhiteKnightTwo carrier airplane, with SpaceShipTwo passenger craft takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., Feb. 22, 2019. VOA

Virgin Galactic’s first test passenger received her commercial astronaut wings from the U.S. aviation regulator on Tuesday after flying on the company’s rocket plane to evaluate the customer experience in February.

Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, Beth Moses, who is a former NASA engineer, became the first woman to fly to space on a commercial vehicle when she joined pilots David Mackay and Mike Masucci on SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity.

The wings were presented to the three-person crew at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado by the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space, Wayne Monteith.

“Commercial human space flight is now a reality,” he said.

astronaut wings
Navy Aviation Warfare Insignia. Wikimedia

The February test flight nudged Richard Branson’s space travel company closer to delivering suborbital flights for the more than 600 people who have paid Virgin Galactic about $80 million in deposits. Branson has said he hopes to be the first passenger on a commercial flight in 2019.

The 90-minute flight, during which passengers will be able to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature, costs $250,000 — a price that the company said will increase before it falls.

Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are also in the space tourism race. Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard rocket to space, but its trips have not yet carried humans.

SpaceX last year named Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa as its first passenger on a voyage around the moon, tentatively scheduled for 2023.

Moses, who as a NASA engineer worked on the assembly of the International Space Station, is designing a three-day training program for Virgin Galactic’s future space tourists.

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The wings were presented to the three-person crew at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado by the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space, Wayne Monteith. Wikimedia

“I gleaned a lot of firsthand information that we can roll into the design and then also into the training,” she said on her return to earth in Mojave, California, in February.

The passengers, some of whom have been signed up since 2004, will train in a mock-up cabin at New Mexico’s Spaceport America before their flights.

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Moses told Reuters she aims for customers to arrive in space “not wondering what noise they just heard or being surprised by the G they just felt.”

Virgin Galactic’s Branson will also receive the annual Space Achievement Award at the symposium in recognition of the company’s two crewed test flights, the first from U.S. soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011. (VOA)

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Virgin Galactic to Run its Commercial Flight Operations

Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot

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Virgin Galactic's carrier plane makes its way across the apron in front of Spaceport America following a test flight over its new permanent home near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

Spaceport America is no longer just a shiny shell of hope that space tourism would one day launch from this remote spot in the New Mexico desert.

The once-empty hangar that anchors the taxpayer-financed launch and landing facility has been transformed into a custom-tailored headquarters where Virgin Galactic will run its commercial flight operations.

The interior spaces unveiled Thursday aim to connect paying customers with every aspect of the operation, providing views of the hangar and the space vehicles as well as the banks of monitors inside mission control.

Two levels within the spaceport include mission control, a preparation area for pilots and a lounge for customers and their friends and families, with each element of the fit and finish paying homage to either the desert landscape that surrounds the futuristic outpost or the promise of traveling to the edge of space.

Virgin Galactic, Commercial, Flight
Virgin Galactic employees gather at the coffee bar that serves as the heart of the company’s social hub at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

From hotel rooms to aircraft cabins, the Virgin brand touts its designs for their focus on the customer experience. Spaceport is no different.

A social hub includes an interactive digital walkway and a coffee bar made of Italian marble. On the upper deck, shades of white and gray speak to Virgin Galactic’s more lofty mission.

Company officials say the space is meant to create “an unparalleled experience” as customers prepare for what Virgin Galactic describes as the journey of a lifetime.

Timeline not set

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Just how soon customers will file into Virgin Galactic’s newly outfitted digs for the first commercial flights to space has yet to be determined. A small number of test flights are still needed.

“We were the first company to fly a commercial space ship to space with somebody in the back who was not a pilot — first time that somebody like that has been able to get out of their seats and float around the cabin,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said. “So it’s happening. We have a bit more work to do before we get to commercial service.”

Billionaire Richard Branson, who is behind Virgin Galactic, and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, first pitched the plan for the spaceport nearly 15 years ago.

There were construction delays and cost overruns. Virgin Galactic’s spaceship development took far longer than expected and had a major setback when its first experimental craft broke apart during a 2014 test flight, killing the co-pilot.

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A digital walkway with mirrored ceiling serves as the entrance to the social hub of Virgin Galactic’s digs at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

Critics suggested the project was a boondoggle, but supporters argued that there were bound to be hard and sometimes costly lessons.

Democratic state Sen. George Munoz has enduring concerns about the business model for commercial, low-orbit travel for passengers.

“You can have all the money in the world and come back and say, ‘Was my 30 seconds of fame worth that risk?'” he said.

Munoz says New Mexico’s anticipated return on investment in terms of jobs and visitors is still overdue, with more than $200 million in public funds spent on Spaceport America in cooperation with Virgin Galactic as the anchor tenant.

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New facility

At the facility Thursday, the carrier plane for Virgin’s rocket-powered passenger ship made a few passes and touch-and-goes over a runway.

Behind the spaceport’s signature wall of curved glass, mission control sits on the second floor with an unobstructed view of the runway and beyond.

There’s also space behind two massive sliding doors to accommodate two of Virgin Galactic’s carrier planes and a fleet of six-passenger rocket ships.

Virgin Galactic, Commercial, Flight
Virgin Galactic employees gather in the ground floor lounge at Spaceport America near Upham, New Mexico, Aug. 15, 2019. VOA

Virgin Galactic posted on social media earlier this week that its main operating base was now at the spaceport. And Branson said the wing of Virgin’s next rocket ship has been completed.

Chief Pilot Dave Mackay said the crew in the coming days will fly simulated launch missions to ensure in-flight communications and airspace coordination work as planned. The pilots also will be familiarizing themselves with New Mexico’s airspace and landmarks.

“New Mexico is on track to become one of the very few places on this beautiful planet which regularly launches humans to space,” Mackay said.

Whitesides said that once the test flights are complete, commercial operations can begin. He envisions a fundamental shift in humanity’s relationship with space, noting that fewer than 600 people ever have ventured beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

“We’re going to be able to send way more than that to space from this facility here,” he said. “In another 15 years, I really hope that we’ve had thousands of people go.”

About 600 people have reserved a seat, according to the company, at a cost of $250,000 a ticket.

That buys them a ride on the winged rocket ship, which is dropped in flight from the carrier airplane. Once free, it fires its rocket motor to hurtle toward the boundary of space before gliding back down.

The latest test flight reached an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers) while traveling at three times the speed of sound. (VOA)