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“I am so excited, it has been an unreal experience, I keep feeling like I’m watching someone else’s life but it’s my life,” Jamila Gilbert, Virgin Galactic (VG) astronaut 007, said prior to her journey May 25 aboard VG’s Unity 25 flight to space.
Gilbert, a Las Cruces native, has been working with the company for four years and sharing her excitement with people about the VG mission to take customers on commercial spaceflights. When she got the call in February asking if she would join an actual flight as a mission specialist, she couldn’t believe it.
“I was told, and I had to have this secret that I wasn’t allowed to share with anyone and to see this 140-foot wingspan giant mothership come in for a landing (Unity 24, April 26) and know ‘Oh, shoot! There’s my ride’ … it was surreal,” she said.
Gilbert said her job on the flight is to evaluate the customer experience end-to-end, “as if I had purchased a ticket.”
She believes VG wants to hear the joy about the experience.
“We just want to hear what this experience was like from a very human perspective,” she said. “We don’t want to feedback engineering-minded metrics, they are just wanting to hear unfiltered content.”
The customers who have already signed up for future journeys are interesting, Gilbert said. She has been able to meet a number of them over the past four years. The reasons and expectations are different for each.
For some people it’s their childhood dream and they remember watching launches on television and thinking, “Oh, I want to do that.” Then there are the flat-out thrill seekers. They have climbed mountains, scuba-dived and done the most extreme things on the planet and now want to experience space.
And some want to experience the overview effect, as does Gilbert.
“It’s been some great stuff,” she said. “I’m very much looking forward to every second of it.”
“I feel great,” Gilbert said. “It was a week ago today and part of feels like it was six months ago and part of it feels like it was just yesterday.”
As a visual learner, she describes her journey into space as “incredible” and “brilliant.” After a week of preparations, fittings, practice, training, Gilbert said the lead-up was “fun.”
As they headed for the ship on the runway from VG’s hangar Gilbert’s spacesuit pockets hid the turquoise earrings; more turquoise from Cerillos, New Mexico; pictures drawn by her niece and nephew; a few watercolor sketches she had done herself; and a personal mission statement.
“Then we boarded, and it was this unreal moment getting into a spaceship,” she said. “The morning light was so beautiful.”
The numbers counted down through the speakers: “5,4,3,2,1 release, release, release,” and the ship is in freefall just before the powerful engines kick in.
“You start feeling this exhilaration,” she said. “You drop and feel this feeling of lightness and a few moments later you feel power, you start going forward, just incredible raw power.”
Then, another command from the speakers: “You are clear to unstrap,” and she could get out of her seat into free float. She held the window grab and couldn’t look away.
“It was just like a brilliant roundness and brightness and black as far as the eye could see,” she said. “Something magical happened. I got eye-level and I saw the crescent moon.”
Later she learned it was a moon not visible from earth at that same time; earth hadn’t even had its moonrise.
“I was taken about how vivid [the sight was], I have never seen anything as crisp,” Gilbert said. “It was as if my vision got better. I’ve always had poor vision; I have contacts now. There was a time when having poor vision would have kept you from being an astronaut, but not anymore.”
On descent, “I felt incredibly brave, alive, all of my cells were turned on; elated; happy, felt awe.”
She carries that feeling of awe with her today and doesn’t think it’s ever going to change. When they landed and got out of the Rover that took them back to the hangar, the crew was greeted by a group of people.
“I knew logically there was not 10 thousand people there but the eruption from our friends and our family, our colleagues, our co-workers — it sounded like there was a sea of people,” she said. “It was the best day of my life.”
For Gilbert’s complete account of her experience going to space, visit this story at www.lascrucesbulletin.com.
The company is preparing for commercial spaceline operations beginning with the “Galactic 01” mission planned for late June.
Astronaut 007 Jamila Gilbert’s flight description
I feel great
It was a week ago today but part of feels like it was six months ago and part of it feels like it was just yesterday. It was incredible, it was just so brilliant. I’m a very visual learner, very visual person.
The day was just fun and leading into it was just such a fun week. There is some repetition that happens during training days. We would get up, eat a light breakfast, drive out there (to Spaceport). We watched the sun come up; the colors start to change.
We arrived at Spaceport (on the day of the flight), were greeted by the team at entrance of Gateway to Space (the Virgin Galactic building), then proceeded to go down this hallway which we had seen before, but now it meant something different. I was walking with “Chewy” (Christopher Huey) and Luke (Mays) and met Beth Moses and we were greeted by hospitality team members.
We got into our space suits which we had been doing every day of the week, putting our items which we were going to take with us into pockets. Then we met with our pilots who let us know the conditions of the day and then from there it feels a little bit like a blink of an eye, everything started moving very quickly. We went downstairs; they had this beautifully lit floor. It was lined by our friends and family, coworkers. You come out of the hangar doors and are greeted by applause, coming out was quite interesting because there a Rover there to take us and my good friend requested to drive us out.
We step outside and I get into the Rover and who is there but Richard Branson. He is sitting in the front seat. It was just a really nice and surprising moment. He just flew to space himself and this is him getting to pass the torch – the baton – along. He was so lovely and so kind.
So, they drove us down to the runway and we got to the hammerhead area of the runway, got our final items on, got our coms checked. Then we boarded and it was this unreal moment getting into a spaceship. The morning light was so beautiful.
As you are climbing with the windows above you are under our mothership Eve. The light just kind of starts to stream across the cabin, and it and it really struck me because it was so pink. It was just so neat, it was calm, the climb was calm.
We hear the voice of our pilots. They are doing callouts to each other so you can hear the two VMS Eve pilots, you can hear the two Spaceship pilots and you can hear the chief pilot who is in the MCC, and it starts sounding a little like a cadence, a rhythm, its just relaxing more than you might think.
Then you hear L-14; L-4, L-2 checks (minutes to launch) and then things started happening incredibly, incredibly quickly. We get to L-2 – another sense of calm rushes the room – I know we are about to go to space. We’ve been training for it and I kind of position my hands on my shoulder straps getting ready. You hear the countdown – 5,4,3,2,1 release release release – and it’s just a free fall and you start feeling this exhilaration. There is a drop and you feel this feeling of lightness and a few moments later you feel power, you start going forward, just incredible raw power. It was amazing, exhilarating Just being projected forward, then you start turning a bit and you keep looking straight. You are looking out front where the pilots are. You can turn your eyes to look outside.
Then what happened is amazing. I’m looking forward and I’m seeing the color and breath starts turning from light blue to navy then a dark navy and then it became black and off to the side. It’s like a beautiful light blue color and you can start seeing from sky blue to horizon line. Then when you hear “you are clear to unstrap,” you can get out of your seat so the first thing I did is hold on to the side (of the seat). Your limbs just kind of float freely. It’s a little like being in bath water where the temperature of the water is so closely related to your body temperature there is almost no distinction, you are not fighting with gravity or too hot a temperature.
What I was looking at was 10-fold better. I was holding on to the window grab. I didn’t feel like I could look away. It was a pull to look out. It was just like a brilliant, roundness and brightness and black as far as the eye could see, an absence of color that just looked like death. Something magical happened, I got eye level and I saw the moon, it was a crescent moon.
You can see the curvature of the planet, my first thought had been “I think we went too high” because I had seen picture after picture, video after video, over the last four years and none of them remotely looked like the planet in such curvature, such height, at such high visibility. It was like hyperrealism, it was unbelievable, so that was my first thought and then I saw this moon. What struck me was the symmetry of it; the whole scene was symmetrical with the moon in the center. Out of my window it was a moon that was not visible from earth at that same time; earth hadn’t even had its moonrise. And it was so special and so unique to see a moonrise from space.
Everything looked to be in the highest definition. And just incredibly clear. It feels like someone’s turned up the contrast. Like the Organ Mountains are always beautiful but sometimes they have less dust and humidity in the atmosphere. This was kind of like that only a million times better and brighter. It was beautiful, ineffable, the magnitude was just …
Like when you are trying to take a photo of the sunset, you know already the photo you capture is not going to capture it. It’s so vast and so broad – so much bigger than I could have imagined. I was just more taken about how vivid, never seen anything as crisp. It was as if my vision got better. I’ve always had poor vision; I have contacts now and there was a time when having poor vision would have kept you rom being an astronaut, but not anymore. It felt like someone dialed up how well I could see.
I did not know how emotional and special space flight could be but it is such a gift. I just have this sense of wonder after coming home that I really haven’t experienced since I was a kid. I can’t remember anything that has stopped me in my tracks. I mean this is the most stunning thing I have ever seen and to know logically outside of that emotional response of seeing the planet logically all people are born on this planet and live on this planet and not just in our time frame but all human experience. To have the opportunity to see that it’s such an honor. Space flight is humbling. I cannot believe how indescribable it is.
On the glide down, I felt incredibly brave, alive, all my cells were turned on, elated, happy, felt awe, still feel awe today. I don’t think that is going to change. I feel more shocked about how shocked I was and just looking at it and not being able to comprehend what I was looking at; it was so broad and so big, so massive looking down at it, it was glowing. If they asked me to go again, I would say yes in a heartbeat.
So we landed perfectly on the center of the center of the runway and we pulled up to spaceport and we entered the spaceship in a specific order, it was me Luke, Chewy and then Beth. As we landed, I was to be the first person to get out, moment to moment the day kept surprising. I jumped out and I knew logically there was not 10 thousand people there but the eruption from our friends and our family our colleagues, our coworkers – it sounded like there was a sea of people.
It was the best day of my life.