Spaceship Unity on a recent Virgin Galactic flight. (credit: Virgin Galactic)
My suborbital life, part 6: Anticipation
by Alan Stern Wednesday, November 1, 2023
My rookie spaceflight is so close now that it’s hard to believe that its time is really here. We plan to fly on Thursday, launching aboard Virgin Galactic’s Unity spacecraft. As the flight nears, I’m hearing from a lot of friends and colleagues, with both questions and good wishes for the mission, which I really love.
One colleague, a talented physicist named Setthivoine (Sett) You at Helicityspace Corporation (where I serve as an advisor) recently asked me in jest to verify for him that the world is indeed round. So I told him I’d do that, and adding that “bonus” science to my research and training mission.
The rounded, marble Earth. (credit: NASA)
As the flight approaches, the single greatest feeling I have about it is high anticipation.
My mind continuously tries to anticipate what spaceflight will actually be like, both in real time, and also in the days and weeks afterwards as I process the experience. What it will feel like, look like, sound like, and smell like? How will it compare the many, many research aircraft flights I’ve done in F-18s, WB-57s, F-104s, and zero-G aircraft?
But as someone who has long wanted to fly in space, there are many, many things I want to know and soon will. A few that come to mind, are these:
First, how will ever I sleep the night before the flight?
What will go through my mind as we board spaceship Unity and strap in, and then in the moments just before release of the spaceship and the beginning of powered ascent up the altitude hill to the vacuum of space?
How will the powerful rocket boost to space compare to full afterburner climbs I’ve done in high performance aircraft?
How will my own eyes perceive the blackness of space that so many astronauts have commented on?
Will I easily recognize landmarks across the USA from the windows? Will there even be time for that?
How scale-model 3-D will the mountains and clouds look nearly 90,000 meters (300,000 feet) below us?
Will time dilate during the fleeting three or so minutes of microgravity when all of my in-space research and training activities take place? Or will it instead pass in an accelerated, blink-of-an-eye moment?
How loud will entry be as Unity aerodynamically decelerates in the thickening atmosphere?
How will I look upon our planet following the flight, having seen it from high beyond it?
Will I experience the Overview Effect?
How will I ever sleep the night after the flight?
I bet my list will change as the flight gets closer, it already has changed a few times. But I’ll close this essay by turning the tables from me to you, asking, what would you most anticipate in your first spaceflight?
Alan Stern is a planetary scientist and aerospace executive. He is a former NASA Associate Administrator for Science, and a former board chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He has now been a part of 30 NASA, ESA, and commercial spaceflight flight mission teams, 15 of those as mission or instrument Principal Investigator, including the almost $1 billion New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
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