A front row seat for the final launch of VSS Unity

About a month ago I got an email from the team at Virgin Galactic saying that the date had been set for the launch of VSS Unity’s final commercial flight, and that any future astronauts who were interested in attending the launch could put their names forward into a selection ballot.

The same email had been sent for previous Unity flights, but New Mexico is a long way to go from Australia for a weekend, so I’d contented myself with watching previous launches via livestream in the middle of the night in Australia, tucked up on the couch with George while the rest of the household slept.  This time though, the launch was scheduled for a date when we were already committed to being in New York for the launch of Century Cricket US to coincide with the T20 World Cup India v Pakistan match.  (More about that here)

New York to New Mexico is a much more achievable weekender – and let’s face it I was fairly confident that Stuart would be more than capable of flying solo on the cricket front, even with the knowledge I’ve gained on that front in recent years! – so I put my name forward into the ballot and kept everything crossed.

The email arrived to say I’d been allocated a place, so I made the arrangements and started counting the days.   I’d last visited Spaceport America in 2016, when the whole family went on a tour.  At the time it was pretty much a shell, with renders on easels outlining the vision for the interiors once the time for flights got closer.   Walking in this past Saturday and seeing those renders come to life  was quite surreal, and I was struck by how close the reality was to the vision that had been outlined all those years ago.

I had a really clear memory of our hosts in that 2016 tour talking us through the intended astronaut experience, where the doors would open and the suited up future astronauts would walk out to the cheers of their family and friends to exit the building, enter the transport vehicles and be driven down to the end of the runway to embark on their journey.  Seeing this happen on Saturday was even better than I had imagined, and it was impossible not to project how it will feel when I’m the one walking down that runway and it’s my friends and family there cheering!

We went outside and watched Unity launch safely tucked up under the mothership Eve, and then caught up with old friends, made some new ones and checked out the merch shop while those on board made their way up to altitude.  The weather was quite cloudy, which made for more comfortable temperatures than the usual searing New Mexico heat, but delivered a risk that we might not get a clear view of the moment we were all waiting for, the release of the spaceship and the launch of the rocket motor.  No need for concern though, as luck would have it the clouds cleared to provide a perfect window and we all cheered with joy as the newest group of astronauts exited the earths atmosphere.

It was an incredibly emotional moment, and a completely different experience to be there and part of that collective release of emotion rather than sitting at home on the couch with George!  I had tears streaming down my face, and looking around I definitely wasn’t in the minority.  We then turned our attention to the live stream feed, where the joy on the faces of those on board was clear to see.

We watched them enjoy their time in zero gravity, and then saw them buckle up for the ride back home.  A collective cheer went up when the sonic boom flagged their re-entry to earth’s atmosphere, and again the clouds were kind to us and parted to give visibility of their approach back to earth, where we could give them a hero’s welcome as they disembarked from Unity and were reunited with their families.

It was a bittersweet day in many ways, with the joy of another successful flight tempered with the knowledge that it was now going to be some time before the next journey could occur.  This was Unity’s last flight, as the company goes all in on the build of the new Delta class spaceships.  Unity served as a wonderful proof point that the company’s mission to make space accessible was possible, but its’ bespoke nature made it very expensive to launch and maintain.  The new Delta crafts are designed to deliver vast increases in capacity and frequency of flights at a significantly reduced cost point, which will mean more people, and also the research payloads that are a regular part of the flights,  will make their journey to space.  The goal is two flights per week, with 6 passengers on each flight, so if that is achieved nearly all of those currently signed up will fly within the first year of the Delta crafts coming online.

After last weekend’s experience it’s fair to say I’m keener than ever for my time to fly, and the fantastic experience of seeing a launch from the ground will keep me sustained until my number comes up.

I want to share with you my favorite quote from the weekend,  Jamila Gilbert who flew last year on Unity25,  said the biggest change in her mindset was she now makes decisions based on curiosity rather than fear after seeing the world from that different perspective.  Words to live by while I await my time to fly.

If you’re keen to see more content of my day at Spaceport America here’s the link to my Instagram highlights

 

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