I was standing inside the Virgin Galactic tourist space plane with three translucent green heads floating in front of me. One of the heads was explaining how the white and turquoise passenger seats that dotted the cabin walls were made from aluminum and carbon fiber materials. Disembodied white hands waved in the air as the head – which belonged to Jeremy Brown, Virgin Galactic’s design director – spoke.
In reality, Brown’s head is neither green nor detached from his body. Brown, the other two virtual tour guides, and I all wore Oculus Quest headsets, which allowed us to virtually meet and walk inside the cabin of the Virgin Galactic space plane called VSS Unity. It’s the company’s primary spacecraft, designed to take paying customers to the edge of space and return for a quick taste of weightlessness.
Virgin Galactic, run by billionaire Richard Branson, had high hopes of showing off the cabin’s new design at a spectacular in-person event, in keeping with the theme of Virgin’s flashy unveilings. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virgin Galactic has decided to make the unveiling booth a virtual booth. At a live event today at 1 p.m. ET, the company will take enthusiasts on a virtual tour of the cabin, while those looking for a more personalized experience can download a smartphone app, which displays the interior and the exterior of the spaceship in augmented reality. . The company loaned me and other journalists Oculus Quest headsets, which gave us an immersive experience seeing the cabin with our own eyes.
“For us, the interior is the point, in a way,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s new space director, the company’s former CEO, told me before the tour. “Experience is the point. And so, in many ways, the product is the cabin and its relationship to the spatial environment and the views from space. It’s all about that.
I started the tour on the virtual track, with VSS Unity in the foreground. Brown was joined by his fellow floating heads: Stephen Attenborough, the commercial director of Virgin Galactic, and Jeremy White, the design director of design firm Seymourpowell, who helped with the project. On Unity’s side were two white Range Rovers. These are the cars that will transport customers to the spacecraft from Spaceport America – the giant turtle-shaped building in New Mexico that serves as the main hub for Virgin Galactic. I moved around Unity by flipping a joystick on one of the two Oculus controllers in my hands, which beamed at me around the track as if I was a ghost entering and exiting existence. After messing around a bit, my guides swapped out the track setting for the interior of Unity.
Suddenly I was inside the fuselage, flanked by the three floating heads. Six passenger seats that looked out of place in a racing car were attached to the walls of the spaceship. The white and teal chairs were partly designed by Under Armor, who also helped design the blue flight suits that customers will wear on their travels. The seats will be tailor-made for each passenger, Brown told me. There are four different seat sizes the company can swap out in the cabin, and the company can add extra padding to the seats to make sure each customer is properly adjusted during the flight.
The seats were spaced apart, with a long walkway recessed between them, running down the center aisle of the spacecraft. The rear fuselage wall sported a giant silver mirror displaying a distorted inverted image of the cabin. The mirror will offer customers a live look at themselves in microgravity. “I think it’s just a brilliant design choice,” Whitesides said. “It’s probably the largest mirror placed in a spaceship or a spaceship or a space habitat. And the idea is that people can actually experience themselves in space and get a feel for what it looks like visually.
Sure, looking at yourself will be cool, but the whole point of the trip is the view outside the spaceship. “Every seat is a window seat,” Brown told me. Next to each seat was a large circular window, with a thick black rim. Another window was positioned directly above the heads of each passenger. When the crew reaches microgravity, they will be able to float easily from the side window to the ceiling window. The rims around the windows also had tiny crevices – handles that floating passengers could grab in order to look at the glass.
The cabin is inspired by Branson’s Virgin Atlantic planes. The lights around the windows glow in different colors depending on where VSS Unity is on its journey into space: white for the initial climb and orange for when the rocket engine ignites. The lights go black in space. Tiny screens on the back of each seat will also show passengers every phase of the journey.
In the scene we were in, the window lights were glowing white. I looked out the window and noticed the New Mexico desert below me. VSS Unity was not yet in space; it was at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the height at which the actual spaceplane will fall from its carrier plane and ignite its engine, ascending into space. Brown flicked a switch I couldn’t see, and we walked back into the cabin – but the view outside the windows changed. This time we could see the stars and the curvature of the Earth above our virtual green heads. We were in microgravity (well, in the headphones).
In this scene, the seats were all tilted to give people more room to float around the cabin once Unity reached the space. Here, above the atmosphere, passengers will unhook their seat belts. The harness consists of five gray straps that converge into a circular loop that rests on a passenger’s chest. A simple twist will release them all and a special mechanism will retract the seat belts. This way, passengers don’t have to deal with the belts floating around them at zero g. “We had an internal phrase called ‘kelp’ – you know, like a kelp forest – and we wanted to avoid that,” Whitesides said.
Brown moved his virtual white hands around each seat to emphasize the mechanics of the straps. Meanwhile, White put his floating hands on the edge of a window and stuck his green face through the glass. The move gave me an idea. I stood in my chair in my apartment and barged through the ceiling of the Unit. I was halfway in space. The Earth sparkled above me – the orange desert of the southwestern United States was clearly visible through my secret sunroof. After a brief moment of respect, I sat down. “Sorry, I had to do it,” I said.
The attention to detail was quite remarkable. Each headrest had small crevices to accommodate anyone wearing their hair in a ponytail for the flight. The two top seat belt straps of each chair were connected to protrusions called “presenters”, making it easier for customers to find their seat belt when they needed to fasten them to their seat. ” [Our customers] have different ranges of motion and different amounts of physical force, so we wanted to make sure it was very easy to do in zero gravity because people will be putting their five point harnesses in zero-g, ”said Whitesides.
Then there were the cameras. Sixteen cameras are located throughout the cabin to capture the experiences of future crews. Each window was fitted with a camera to capture moments of wonder up close, while other floor and ceiling cameras will provide more comprehensive views of the floating passengers. I was assured that the footage would be uploaded quickly after a flight so that each customer could get their videos as quickly as possible once on the ground.
Standing there in the virtual fuselage, I found myself eager to try flight for real. But there’s still a long way to go at Virgin Galactic before people find out about these chic chairs in space. The real VSS Unity is always equipped with the seats, on the one hand. And Virgin Galactic still has other test flights to do. So far, the company has flown into space only twice, taking off from the Virgin Galactic test site at Mojave Air and Space Port in California. The company is scheduled to conduct another test flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico, which still has not happened.
“Once we do that, we’ll start putting mostly test passengers or spaceflight participants in the back seats, which will be really exciting,” Whitesides said. “They will be the ones who will confirm that all of the design choices we have made in this cabin are the right ones.” And then after a few of those flights, it will be time for Branson to join Virgin Galactic’s first dedicated trade mission to space. There is no solid timeline for this, however.
At the end of my visit, the heads of my guides disappeared one by one. I lifted my Oculus headset and was back in my one bedroom apartment, still conveniently located on Earth. Maybe one day Virgin Galactic customers can escape the limits of gravity inside this pretty, sleek cabin. But for now, a virtual escape is the best we have.