After combing through a long list of astronauts, fighter pilots and space geeks, British billionaire Richard Branson settled on a new astronaut pilot to join his start-up space venture that aims to lift paying passenger’s into space.
Branson’s company Virgin Galactic announced Wednesday that former U.S. Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer will join chief pilot David Mackay to begin flight training and testing of the company’s revolutionary aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo.
Colmer was selected from more than 500 applicants, which included about 10 current and former astronauts, said Virgin Galactic Chief Executive George T. Whitesides in a recent interview at the company’s offices in Pasadena.
“We selected the best pilot for our vehicles,” he said. “Unlike most spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo is actually flown to space. So the emphasis is on people who have tremendous pilot skills.”
In the past, the way people reached outer space is aboard a high-powered rocket.
Instead, Virgin Galactic will depart from Spaceport America in New Mexico using a WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft. It will fly with the reusable SpaceShipTwo rocket plane under its wing to 50,000 feet, where the spaceship will separate, blast off, and be flown back to New Mexico.
When the rocket motor engages, strong gravitational forces will pin the pilot to the back of his seat as he steers the craft -– and up to six passengers -- to the edge of space, or about 60 miles above the Earth's surface.
Once they reach that suborbital altitude, passengers will experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth. Then they will re-enter the atmosphere and coast back to a runway at Spaceport America.
The pilot will have manual control of SpaceShipTwo for nearly the entire flight. This is unusual in modern aviation, in which automated controls pervade air and space flight.
“That spaceship is the sexiest vehicle in the world for the right kind of pilot,” Whitesides said. “If you’re going to fly it, you need to have the ‘right stuff.’”
That was a reference to "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe's 1979 book (and later a movie) about the early days of NASA’s space program.
According to Virgin Galactic, Colmer brings 12 years of operational, developmental and experimental aircraft test flight experience plus more than 10 years of combined military experience in Air Force spacecraft operations and flying.
He has logged more 5,000 hours in more than 90 types of aircraft, including two combat tours in Iraq as a F-16 fighter pilot.
Colmer, known as "Coma," will join the team in Mojave, Calif., where Virgin Galactic’s carrier aircraft and spaceships are made by the Spaceship Co. They are undergoing test flights.
Whitesides said the company hopes to start commercial flights within two years.
“I am extremely honored to have been the first astronaut pilot selected through competition to join the team,” Colmer said in a statement. “Virgin Galactic is truly revolutionizing the way we go to space, and I am looking forward to being a part of that.”
-- W.J. Hennigan
Photos from top: Photographers take shots of Virgin Galactic's carrier aircraft and spaceship at Mojave Air and Space Port in September. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times. At right: New Virgin Galactic pilot Keith Colmer. Credit: Virgin Galactic.