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Virgin Galactic sent a test passenger on a spaceflight Friday for the first time ever, taking another large step toward sending paying customers to space.
Only hours after the flight on the vehicle owned by billionaire Richard Branson's company, the three crew members spoke to CNBC about their experience. The crew included chief astronaut trainer Beth Moses, chief pilot Dave Mackay and lead trainer pilot Michael "Sooch" Masucci, and it was the maiden spaceflight for all three of them.
Needless to say, their first impressions were dazzling.
"The Earth was so beautiful and so clear," Moses said. "It was sensationally intense."
Mackay stated: "It's the first time I've been in space and the views are absolutely extraordinary. It's an extraordinary experience."
And Masucci added that "it really was very surreal. What I really took away was how quiet it was ... I just took away the peacefulness."
Each of them commented on the clarity of the view out the spacecraft's windows. Masucci noted that, nearly 300,000 feet above California's Mojave Desert, he took in views that spanned from San Francisco to the southern tip of Baja California, and to the mountains east of Nevada.
"I couldn't believe how much I could see, how far I could see and how clear everything was – how dark the black sky of space was and how bright the planet was. And how silent it was up there," Mackay said.
MacKay, Masucci and Moses joined a list of fewer than 600 human beings who have flown in space. Additionally, Moses became the first woman to fly in space on a U.S. commercial spacecraft.
"Today was the fulfillment of a personal lifelong ambition," Moses said. "But more so, it was the start of something great for all of humanity – ourselves and other commercial companies, we are aiming to take people off the planet."
She added that "aerospace is open to all professions." The space industry and the companies within it "need all professions, not just engineers or pilots or astronauts," Moses said.
Additionally, Moses was the first Virgin Galactic crew member to float freely without restraints during weightlessness.
"We allowed her to unstrap very early on," Mackay said. "Just after the rocket motor shut down she was able to unstrap and she was able to float around and evaluate what the experience is like and evaluate the equipment that we've got in the cabin currently."
Moses described her experience, saying how comfortable she felt in the spacecraft's cabin.
"The first thing I noticed when I unstrapped was how effortless and easy the cabin was that everywhere I wanted something to be I found something," she said.
The spacecraft had NASA payloads on board, close to the weight at which it will fly when there are six passengers during commercial flights. Even with the extra weight, spacecraft Unity perform well, the pilots said.
"The additional weight for the commercial cabin didn't seem to have any great effect on the performance of the vehicle," Mackay said, with Masucci adding that the experience was superior to a simulator.
Moses gave even more detail about her experience, explaining her role in the company's second spaceflight.
"I had a timeline to keep. I was evaluating specific engineering test pilots, so I was also aware and happy that I had activated both of my stopwatches and keeping to my timeline and doing my job," Moses said.
The cabin is not complete, however. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides explained that the company still has a couple of test flights remaining before it moves operations down to New Mexico, where flights with customers will begin.
"We still have some work to do on fitting out and finishing the interior of the vehicle," Whitesides said.
"I expect that we'll make some small improvements based on some of my experiences on this flight, and also expect that I'll be able to instruct our astronauts with more information, and to a higher fidelity than I would have otherwise." Moses added.
Here's what Mackay and Moses said when asked what struck them about their time in space:
"We have some very cold fluids on board the vehicle and because of that some ice forms around us in parts of the structure. What i didn't expect to see was pieces of ice floating around us in space," Mackay said.
"The first thing that caught my eye was the outside of the ship against the backdrop of the Earth and the motion of, I think, some dust particles," Moses said. "It was just gorgeous."
This was Virgin Galactic's second revenue generating flight, Whitesides told CNBC. Thanks to the NASA payloads on board this flight and the previous one in December, his company is already beginning to reap the benefits of their efforts.
"Now we can be flying on a rapid basis, and we think it's really exciting for science and obviously it's a great thing for our business as well," Whitesides said.
Part of the advantage of using rapid reusable spaceflight "is that people can get access to their experiments and their technologies right after we land and they can be looking at their data a few minutes after we land," he added.
Branson's company is now a step ahead of fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos in the space tourism business. Bezos' company Blue Origin is in the final stages of testing its New Shepard rocket. He recently addressed the budding competition, saying "one of the issues" Virgin Galactic must address "is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet." The Karman Line is 100 kilometers of altitude, an internationally recognized boundary of space.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo flies above 80 kilometers, a boundary which the U.S. military and NASA use to recognize astronauts. When asked about those various definitions, Whitesides pointed to the opportunity that Virgin Galactic is offering.
"I think that there are folks who would love to fly, and who recognize that the only other way to do this right now is flying with the Russians and paying $50 to $70 million a seat," Whitesides said.
"So the idea that you can go to space for some hundreds of thousands of dollars is an incredible value and it's part of the revolution that's going on in space as we literally make the costs by orders of magnitude," he added.
"Opening up space is going to take up lots of companies and it's going to take lots of innovation," Whitesides said. "We need to fly more people because we think flying a lot of people into space is going to have a profound impact on the Earth."