Gateway to Space

We’re in El Paso for the beginning of our Solar Eclipse Tour across Texas; today we took a two-hour bus trip to Virgin Galactic’s Gateway to Space at Spaceport America.

The facility is not open to the public, but we were given a special tour. We were greeted by Dave Mackay, Virgin Galactic’s chief pilot, who would be one of our tour guides.

Dave showed us the King Air plane they use to train pilots in multi-engine flying.

Dave took us into the Gateway to Space, where customers come to be trained and take their flights in VSS Unity, the SpaceShip itself. The only place we were allowed to take photos was the cafeteria!

The Walk of Fame is where the customers leave the Gateway to walk out to the ship (and where they receive their astronaut certificates after the flight).

We met our other guides, Michael “Sooch” Masucci (Test Pilot) and Beth Moses (Chief Astronaut Instructor), and set off on the tour; our ascent was by very slow elevator, all the way to the third floor.

Beth showed us the areas where customers are trained; everything is nice and shiny and futuristic. She took us through the three days of training:

Day 1 is all about the customer, beginning with the grand entrance into the training area; the customer dons their suit for the first time and learns what to really expect on the flight. Photos are taken.

Day 2 is more technical; the customer is taken on an aerobatic flight in a plane like the Gamebird below so they can feel reduced and elevated G-forces like they’ll experience. They learn how to get in and out of the seat while in zero-G, and they learn about the cabin they’ll be in. There’s even time for a nap…which everyone takes advantage of – it’s an exhausting day.

Day 3 is more of the same – proficiency testing, repetition, and a go/no-go decision. In the afternoon, they do a full dress rehearsal with family and friends watching, going all the way through the checklist and entering the ship.

And on Day 4, they take off! It’s “90 minutes from coffee to champagne”.

Beth turned us over to Sooch, who took us to the control room and onto the floor where the ships are maintained between flights. We also got to see the pilot simulator take us through an entire flight (although the ascent and descent sections were much shorter than reality). We also heard about the new larger spaceship, Delta, which will be replacing Unity in a year or two.

We returned to the cafeteria for lunch and headed back to El Paso.

It was a great day, but I’m not ready to put a deposit down on a flight. They have a 600-person backlog already, and won’t be taking customers into space until Delta is ready in a couple of years – maybe the price will come down after they work through the backlog!