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Aerospace Engineer Joins Virgin Galactic’s Final Test Before Service Begins
Photos courtesy of Virgin Galactic
For a certain kind of adventurer seeking an out-of-this-world experience, the wait may soon be over.
On Thursday, Virgin Galactic will launch a final test flight before the company’s planned launch of the era of commercial space tourism. And on board the VSS Unity will be University of Maryland alum Chris Huie ‘11, one of four crew members of the “spaceline” who will conduct this last assessment of the customer—or “astronaut”—experience, with all of its thrills, luxury and wonderment.
A mothership called Eve will carry the spacecraft from New Mexico’s Spaceport America up to 50,000 feet, where it will detach and rocket to a suborbital altitude of 50 miles and streak along the boundary of space at speeds of up to 2,600 mph—3.5 times the speed of sound. The passengers along with two pilots will see planet Earth from a perspective previously afforded to few others. More than 800 people have purchased tickets for the 90-minute ride, paying from $200,000 to $450,000, a company spokesman told CNN.
Huie, a flight engineer who joined Virgin Galactic in 2016, will be free to move about the cabin, but his feet might not touch the ground: In near space, passengers will experience near-weightlessness.
He compared this week’s flight to a run of show, when he will work closely with the commercial and medical teams and the astronaut office on assessing each detail. “Although I have a lot of technical expertise regarding this space flight system, what I’m doing now isn’t technical in nature—it’s concerned with evaluating the customer journey.”
This flight will be the first in nearly two years for Virgin Galactic, founded by billionaire Richard Branson, and if successful will put the company on schedule to start commercial services next month.
It will also make Huie a rare Black astronaut. (Another Terp, Jeanette Epps M.S. ’94, Ph.D. ’00, is a longtime member of NASA's astronaut corps.) The son of Jamaican immigrants, he co-founded the company’s Black Leadership in Aerospace Scholarship and Training (BLAST) program, which aims to find and cultivate Black students who are interested in entering aerospace, and ultimately to help them become leaders in the field.
Huie spoke to Maryland Today about the objectives of the upcoming flight, the training he underwent and his hopes of expanding the ranks of Black aerospace engineers.
Take us through a day in your life as a Unity 25 mission crew member in training. What types of things might you be doing or learning in order to prepare physically, mentally and otherwise for the space flight?
No two days are exactly the same. As we prepare for the flight, we’re meeting with our astronaut instructor and getting sized up for our seats and our spacesuits. Everything is built to fit and customized to each individual’s body. We also go through medical screenings and make sure each of us can optimize our health so that we can enjoy the flight fully. There’s a lot of mental preparation as well, learning how to clear the mind and maintain a sharp focus. When we get into the core of the training, we’ll be putting on the flight gear, sitting in our seats and buckling up, and then learning how to maneuver through the cabin in zero gravity—it’s almost like a dancer learning choreography.
What’s your expectation for this flight?
I think it’s going to be a balance of calm and excitement and thrill and elation and “wow” and wonder, and at times just bewilderment. I see our entire space flight experience as a journey, almost like we’re telling a story. There’s the exposition, where you learn about the environment, and then you've got the rising action as you learn more and move toward the exciting part—blasting off on the rocket and going to your highest point, the climax, where you are up there in space seeing the Earth. And then there’s the resolution, as you come back down to Earth slowly and gently, using our feather system, in which the boom wings rotate upwards, slowing the ship down on descent. Finally, you reach the conclusion, landing back where you took off in a full-circle moment.
What were some of the key takeaways from your time at UMD?
I didn’t immediately get into the engineering program, but it was a goal that I had and I set my mind to achieving it. I was admitted into the program my sophomore year and later was accepted into the QUEST Honors Program, where I picked up communication and leadership skills. I think these kinds of skills, which aren’t necessarily part of the core engineering curriculum, are very important, especially in today’s environment where there is a great deal of intersection between engineering and business. No matter how technically skilled you are as an engineer, if you can’t communicate your ideas to the people who are making the decisions, you’re not going to be as effective as you could be.
Are there aspects of your identity or personal experience that you feel have given you a unique perspective or competitive edge in your career?
My own upbringing has been fairly unique. I grew up more quickly than most people do, and I learned to be independent at an early age. My parents immigrated here from Jamaica, and I was raised by a single mom. She always encouraged me to pursue my aspirations and not be limited by my imagination. I do feel driven by this underlying idea that I can do anything that I set my mind to, with enough determination and perseverance.
You’ve been committed to inspiring and supporting young Black scholars pursuing STEM education with a focus on aerospace. Could you tell us more about that?
Education has made all that possible, and it’s opened up doors that might otherwise have remained closed. At Maryland, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering scholarship program for three years, and it was a game-changer. It opened up my eyes to opportunities and also made my college experience significantly more affordable.
I want to give back and help open up doors for others. The leadership piece is essential. Right now, only 3% of aerospace engineering executives are Black, and we need to change that. We want to create leaders who can understand the Black experience and the challenges that come with it, and who can be in a position to bring about change for the better.
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