The future of space tourism is within grasp after the successful test flight of Virgin Galactic‘s Unity 22 with billionaire Richard Branson on board. To date, nearly 90 per cent of those who have officially been crowned astronauts are men, so the fact that two of the Virgin Galactic executives who served as mission specialists on the flight were female astronauts was nothing short of extraordinary, as each also broke barriers of their own to prove that spaceflight can be a realistic dream for everyone. By Rachel Chang
Sirisha Bandla, the company’s VP of government affairs, moved to the US at the age of four and became the third Indian-born woman and the 66th woman ever to reach space, while chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses was returning for her second flight, as she’d been the first human to ever fly on a Virgin Galactic flight back in 2019 — a feat she completed solo.
While the female astronauts were still on a high from their out-of-this-world journey, the pair sat down with Travel + Leisure at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to chat about the realities of space tourism — plus what it’s like to navigate life back on earth as women.
T+L: What were you feeling like before take off?
Bandla: “I know this is so weird, but leading up to the flight, everyone asked if I was nervous. I was waiting for the nerves to begin. Even walking up [to] the spaceship and sitting down, I was waiting to be nervous. I think I was more anxious about getting up to space because I’ve been dreaming about it for so long.”
Beth, this was your second trip to space, what’s been the most epic moment?
Moses: “I tested our cabin solo on my first flight. So the most epic thing I’ve probably done is break in a new cabin by myself. And then the next most epic thing I’ve done is keep three other people safe while we were expanding the use of the cabin. Today one of my jobs was to assist, referee, help, and I think we all did a good job today, but I can’t wait to go look at the videos and see what everyone was doing. This last week, when Richard Branson was here training, we gelled as a team… and I think that showed. We all did our jobs but also had fun and were safe about it. So I think the most epic thing I’ve probably done in space is facilitate that. It’s my job to make others do well.”
You also brought some flowers up to space with you — what did they represent?
Moses: “They were a few different ones. They symbolise different people in my life. I brought up two different siamensis orchids and lilies of the valley, and one more orchid. Just the flowers, not the stems — they were pressed, dried, and in a smaller inner pocket. It was a very DIY project.”
Sirisha, at the post-flight ceremony where you received your astronaut wings, Branson hoisted you onto his shoulders — what was that celebratory moment like?
Bandla: “I had no idea what was happening. Richard is just incredible — he’s so fit. He was like, ‘You’re so light.’ I was like, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ That was not planned. I had no idea what he was doing!”
What are you going to do with your spacesuit now?
Moses: “Well, gosh, I hope to fly again, so maybe I’ll just hang it up in my closet and use it again!”
What did you learn from today’s flight that still needs to be done before commercial flights start in 2022?
Moses: “For this flight, our envisioned commercial interior was installed, so it had seats that are sized to each person. It also had handrails around the windows so you can hold the window frame and look out and really enjoy the view. But it’s a work in progress. We’re refining it. As Richard said, he has many pages of notes here, little tweaks here and there that we are happy to take on board.”
What will the training experience be like?
Moses: “Richard Branson was flying to evaluate the customer experience, so he underwent exactly the planned training for the private astronaut missions. If you buy a ticket with us, it’s roughly a weeklong experience, including three full days of training, so he went through that this past week. We have an experienced architect — a world-renowned [Walt Disney Imagineering] legend, Joe Rodhe, who will flesh out the week in a really refined way. The aim of our experience overall is to make sure that when you fly to space you are transformed and empowered, and it sticks with you. That will happen naturally because space is space and earth is beautiful, but we aim to sort of enhance your experience to the point where you just can’t help but be transformed and then can use that and carry it forward in your life.”
What is it like being female astronauts and paving the path in this male-dominated industry?
Bandla: “My biggest piece of advice is to find yourself a mentor because I don’t think I would have been able to navigate this without great mentors. You get into weird uncomfortable situations… and having someone to help me navigate those moments really helped me. When I first joined the policy world in DC, I was in a room where I was not only the woman but the only woman of colour and I would say something, and someone else would say the same thing right after me and theirs was the comment that was taken. It’s just weird. How do you keep going when that happens? Mentorship really helps. One of the reasons I joined Virgin Galactic is that the team is so incredible and everyone here has such a passion for what they’re doing — we call each other teammates because we are on the same team.”
Where’s the most amazing place you’ve been back here on Earth?
Bandla: “I’m gonna say Seoul because I love K-Dramas. When I went to Seoul with my best friend, we went to a lot of places [where] K-Dramas were filmed — and the food was incredible, too. The reason I love travelling so much is that you meet so many different people, you see so many different cultures. This is what I’m really hoping for in the future of space travel. You’re going to see more female astronauts, you’re going to see more people of colour and they’re gonna all go back to their communities — and it will likely be the first astronaut a lot of children will meet. I think you’re going see this incredible downstream effect of the next generation and what they think that they can do. The possibilities are endless.”
As female astronauts who have truly gone the distance, what advice would you give to others who are considering solo travel or other adventures of their own?
Moses: “Seize the day, go anywhere you want! Do it! I mean, be safe about it, whether you’re in space or on Earth, be safe about it, but sure as heck go, have fun! The world is beautiful! Taste it in all its glory.”
For any sceptics, why should people consider a spaceflight?
Moses: “First of all, you can do it — it is not scary. Training will make you fully comfortable with it. And second of all, every human soul needs to refine their relationship with Mother Earth and other humans. You can do that in any number of ways, simple ways on Earth, or majestic ways in space. You need to… have that transformation because it makes life so much more wonderful and enjoyable.”
Bandla: “It’s so hard to describe it, but you’re going to come back with a whole new perspective on the planet. I know people think it’s scary, but what Virgin Galactic has created and verified today is that it’s such a smooth, comfortable ride, so that you can actually focus on the views, on Earth, and on the microgravity. It’s incredible! And let me tell you, my hair looks so much better in microgravity — I’ve never had so much volume!”