To infinity and beyond! Stuff talks spaceflight with Virgin Galactic’s pilot

Space pilot Mike “Sooch” Masucci on the challenges of taking to the thermosphere
Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two

Space is about to get a bit closer, thanks to Virgin Galactic.

Some 700 intrepid – and wealthy – individuals have already placed deposits amounting to US$85 million to take to the thermosphere aboard Richard Branson’s SpaceShip Two VSS Enterprise craft. Once they’re up at 110km, they’ll get to experience zero gravity and some astounding views of the planet.

But who’s taking them up there? That task falls to Mike “Sooch” Masucci – the pilot who’ll be flying SpaceShip Two's maiden space flight. Stuff caught up with him at an event to mark the partnership between Virgin Galactic and Land Rover, to talk training, G-Forces and learning how to use a seat.

Mike “Sooch” Masucci

What’s your background? How do you go about becoming a space pilot? Well, I got my engineering degree from the US Air Force Academy and then I was a pilot in the Air Force for around 23 years. I was flying all sorts of aircraft, like F-16s and U2s, which lead me into charter planes and flying private passengers around. It set me up nicely for Virgin Galactic, which I’ve been doing for about a year now.

What’s the training regime like?We received most of our training in the military but the stuff we are doing now is mainly in the simulator and flying the WhiteKnightTwo vessel, which is the aircraft that takes VSS Enterprise into the skies. This gives us a good feel of how everything works but there is still some testing to do.

Virgin Galactic and Land Rover

How long before Virgin Galactic starts taking paying customers? We are pretty close considering the first concept was only released 10 years ago. We have a full slate of flight-testing for this coming summer and as soon as we are complete, Sir Richard will be having the first flight and then after that, we will be open for business.

Surely you can’t just fly a plane into space without dealing with air traffic control? That’s the whole point; we are working with the US Federal Aviation Administration so we can show up on any radar. It’s a commercial space programme so we want to use the same slots as commercial aircraft. We’ll definitely show up on air traffic control, just a little higher where there’s no threat of us bumping into anyone.

Virgin Galactic and Land Rover
Virgin Galactic

So, we’ve got US$250,000 and a burning desire to go into space. What sort of training do we need? It’s actually not much. We will bring the customer out to the Mojave Desert about three or four days before the flight and give them a series of training activities that include scripting the entire process minute-by-minute, zero gravity training and some communication drills. The more aware the customer is of what I’m doing up front, the more enjoyable their experience will be. The customer will also learn how to use their seat properly – as in, be able to get in and out of it without help – because there aren’t any stewardesses on this flight.

Learn to use a seat? That sounds intense… The seats actually have a lot of technology built into them – technology we have taken from automotive design. Basically, the seat will tilt backwards and forwards in conjunction with the phase of flight. It removes a lot of the G-Force from the customer during boost and re-entry phases because if you are lying flat, the Gs are predominantly in the chest area, which is a lot easier to deal with than your head. The customer will also learn how to unfasten their belt in zero gravity and safely return to their seat when it’s time to go home.

It’s also a lot of money. Is it really worth it? Think about the global perspective you’ll have. You’ll be up there in the atmosphere, a place where hardly any human beings have ever been. In fact, we have more future astronauts signed up for the programme than there have been actual astronauts. But seriously, it gives you a whole new perspective on life and it makes you appreciate our planet more, being up there.

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