Beth Moses is the chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic. On Feb. 22, 2019, she lived the moment she felt she’d been born for — she went to work in space for the first time.
It was Virgin Galactic’s second spaceflight and nearly a year on from that historic day, Beth, the 571st human to marvel at Earth from the black sky of space, reflects on the flight that made her Commercial Astronaut 007.
A. What’s your role at Virgin Galactic?
Q. As the chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic, I’m responsible for the cabin layout and developing the training program for the astronauts who will fly on SpaceShipTwo. Currently, I structure all the evaluation exercises that are undertaken during the flight test program, which are helping us to prepare the cabin for commercial service and which are intrinsic to the astronaut experience.
I’ll also be sorting out bespoke cabin procedures for each flight and deciding where people sit in the cabin, a part of which will be dependent on what they want to do while experiencing zero gravity: “Superman” pose, somersaults, or simply take in the views.
Q. Why were you chosen to be the first person to fly in SpaceShipTwo’s cabin?
A. I am an extreme environment test expert. Before joining Virgin Galactic, I spent years at NASA working in parabolic aircraft testing hardware in weightlessness and under high G. I also planned, conducted and trained others to conduct neutral buoyancy tests and thermal vacuum tests, which verified the hardware used on the International Space Station. The Pilot Corps at Virgin Galactic is made up of elite test pilots. It’s fair to say the two pilots who were in the cockpit during my spaceflight, Dave Mackay and Mike ‘Sooch’ Masucci, are among the most experienced in the world, that’s why they were flying the spaceship. Likewise, I was in the cabin due to my experience of extreme environment testing for human spaceflight systems. If you are going to train others, it also makes a lot of sense to have done it yourself!
Q. How did the spaceflight start?
A. I sat in seat 2R, which is second row right and felt like I had my own private part of the spaceship. Each seat is both an aisle and a window seat, with a big window directly beside you and another above your head. I could also see out of the five windows in the cockpit which was directly in front of me.
Take-off was like being in a normal airplane except we climbed at a slightly steeper angle. The first 45 minutes of the flight you’re climbing to release altitude while the spaceship is strapped to our mothership, VMS Eve. Sitting in the cabin you hear the spaceship and carrier aircraft pilots talking to each other and with Mission Control, which is fascinating. By the time of launch you’re approaching 50,000 feet, so higher than you’ve traveled in commercial aviation and the views are already pretty impressive.
Q. What was the release from VMS Eve and the ignition of the rocket motor like?
A. I heard VMS Eve count us down, ‘3. 2. 1. Release, Release, Release.’ I saw VMS Eve rise away from us and then I was noting the sensations to camera while waiting for the rocket motor to ignite. I had two stopwatches on my wrist and I was trained down to the microsecond, yet this moment felt two to three times longer than it really was. There are three seconds between release and the spaceship rocket motor igniting, but it felt like maybe 10. I’d been anticipating this moment my whole life.
The rocket motor ignited and we set off with an equivalent zero to 60mph time of less than a second. It’s a smooth yet exhilarating surge of acceleration, unlike anything you’ve ever felt in any other vehicle. I wasn’t shunted back in my chair, the energy spread out comfortably across my upper body. I could hear the pilots calling out key points, with the Mach 1 call which meant we were now supersonic, coming after 8 seconds. It’s at this moment the pilots start to turn towards space.
I felt the force of the turn upwards come on very smoothly. The maximum head-to-toe compression as the nose was pulled up was there for about two breaths and by the time the second breath had passed, I was no longer feeling it. What I vividly remember was being completely enthralled by the sky outside the window, which was turning from blue to purple. Then, as the sky finally turned black, we continued rocketing straight upwards and I heard the pilots calling out Mach 2, Mach 2.5, and finally Mach 3.
Q. When did you feel zero-gravity?
A. As soon as the rocket motor shut down; it was very smooth and the spaceship nose was pointing straight up. A few seconds after the rocket motor shut off, I was cleared to unbuckle. I put one hand on the window frame and with the other hand unclipped my belt and I was free. Hollywood movies always show people’s arms and legs floating upwards as soon as they hit a zero-gravity environment, but in reality, there is an absence of any force. It just feels so natural. It’s free and delightful and you can’t help but smile.
Q. What was the first thing you did in space?
A. The first thing I did was a planned safety check — I ascertained the condition of the cabin and my own condition and confirmed that it was safe to unstrap and leave my seat.
As soon as I unbuckled, I turned to the window and saw the Earth below. That first thought I had was, ‘I see the curve of the Earth!’ The pilots told me afterward that I actually said it out loud. I was completely awestruck.
Then I continued with my planned test: I got back into my seat to check it, unbuckled again a different way, leaned and floated to the top of the cabin, floated purposely about the cabin checking specific handling aids and ship motion, and finally arrived at the front where I celebrated with the pilots. The cabin felt just the right size, I was never out of reach for something to touch to help me move around.
Q. What was apogee like?
A. Apogee was the high point in more than one way. It was the most magical moment of my life and there are no words to adequately express the feeling it gave me. The spaceship coasted to a complete stop, I was totally weightless, hovering behind the pilots, miles and miles above the Earth. I became aware of the deep, dark eternal blackness of space, then Earth captivated my view. I could see a thousand miles, halfway up the U.S, halfway down into Mexico, the Pacific Ocean, the North American continent.
We flew on a day where there was snow on the mountains that line the coast. Picture seeing snow in sunlight and then try to imagine seeing it without the atmosphere. It felt like these mountains were glistening just for me. I will forever love the sight of a snow-capped mountain in a way I never did before.
All five of us who have flown to space on SpaceShipTwo say that apogee feels timeless. You reach this moment where the spaceship completely stops and it feels like time stops with it. All there is, is you and this view which completely engulfs your senses.
Even a year after that spaceflight I have not yet experienced everything that moment did to me. I still unpack it in my soul and find new elements. It comes to me unexpectedly at times — I see it, I feel it, I experience it. I absolutely love talking about it, for me, apogee was enlightenment.
Q. How has life changed since that day?
A. For a start I get invited to go to all kinds of events, ones far outside of the space industry that I would never have anticipated. It’s opened up new doors and experiences in my life that I wouldn’t have had before. The word astronaut is incredibly powerful. When I meet new people there’s this joy and excitement, they’re eager to hear about my experience and ask me questions. It feels like I’ve been embraced by a larger slice of humanity than I could have ever predicted.
Also, on a personal level I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore and I don’t make time for anything less than love. The peace, serenity, and perfection that engulfed my soul all those miles above the Earth has become my benchmark for all my future miles here on Earth.
Earth is a living miracle and I saw it slowly stirring below, possessing more magic than any of us can truly appreciate. I saw the Earth. Period. No turmoil, borders, flotsam, or jetsam. And I saw it while floating completely free and weightless, unstrapped and unhurried.
Q. Where do you keep your astronaut wings?
A. I keep them in a secure, treasured location. But for every day of 2019 they were in my pocket and at night they were on my bedside table, the closest object to me. I finally cut the cord on Jan. 1, 2020, and stopped sleeping next to them, although I still wear them at all public talks. They are my most prized possession.
Q. What’s the question you get asked the most?
A. ‘What was it like?’ And my answer is, ‘Indescribable.’
I lack the ability to do it justice. I have been in this field my entire life and I’ve loved space since before I could talk and I can tell you no photo does it justice. ‘Indescribable’ is the only answer.