Alum at Frontier of Commercial Space Tourism

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Chris Huie

For a certain kind of adventurer seeking an out-of-this-world experience, the wait may soon be over.

On Friday, Virgin Galactic will launch a final test flight before the company’s planned launch of the era of commercial space tourism. And on board the VSS Unity will be University of Maryland alum Chris Huie ‘11, one of four crew members of the “spaceline” who will conduct this last assessment of the customer—or “astronaut”—experience, with all of its thrills, luxury and wonderment.

A mothership called Eve will carry the spacecraft from New Mexico’s Spaceport America up to 50,000 feet, where it will detach and rocket to a suborbital altitude of 50 miles and streak along the boundary of space at speeds of up to 2,600 mph—3.5 times the speed of sound. The passengers along with two pilots will see planet Earth from a perspective previously afforded to few others. More than 800 people have purchased tickets for the 90-minute ride, paying from $200,000 to $450,000, a company spokesman told CNN.

Chris Huie (right) is congratulated by Maryland Engineering’s Dean Samuel Graham, Jr. on being inducted into UMD’s Early Career Distinguished Alumni (ECDA) Society in September 2022. A senior manager at Virgin Galactic, Huie is part of a four-member crew that will fly aboard VSS Unity to evaluate the spaceflight system and astronaut experience ahead of a planned commercial service to be launched by Virgin Galactic in June.

Take us through a day in your life as a Unity 25 mission crew member in training. What types of things might you be doing or learning in order to prepare physically, mentally and otherwise for the space flight? No two days are exactly the same. As we prepare for the flight, we’re meeting with our astronaut instructor and getting sized up for our seats and our spacesuits. Everything is built to fit and customized to each individual’s body. We also go through medical screenings and make sure each of us can optimize our health so that we can enjoy the flight fully. There’s a lot of mental preparation as well, learning how to clear the mind and maintain a sharp focus. When we get into the core of the training, we’ll be putting on the flight gear, sitting in our seats and buckling up, and then learning how to maneuver through the cabin in zero gravity—it’s almost like a dancer learning choreography.

What’s your expectation for this flight? I think it’s going to be a balance of calm and excitement and thrill and elation and “wow” and wonder, and at times just bewilderment. I see our entire space flight experience as a journey, almost like we’re telling a story. There’s the exposition, where you learn about the environment, and then you've got the rising action as you learn more and move toward the exciting part—blasting off on the rocket and going to your highest point, the climax, where you are up there in space seeing the Earth. And then there’s the resolution, as you come back down to Earth slowly and gently, using our feather system, in which the boom wings rotate upwards, slowing the ship down on descent. Finally, you reach the conclusion, landing back where you took off in a full-circle moment.

What would engineering students at UMD be surprised or interested to know about your crew member training? It’s been really interesting to see how much mental preparation I’ve been doing and how helpful that has been. By nature, I’m highly analytical—that’s the engineer’s brain again. I think a lot. But for something like this it’s important to subside the thoughts in your brain so you can focus only on the things that matter.  We sometimes call this “the bubble.” Pilots with a great deal of experience know how to get into the bubble and keep themselves laser-focused on the flight, blocking out anything else that might distract them. And we’re trying to key into that mindset. Generally life is full of distractions and noise–somebody’s talking or playing music in the background, or there’s a baby crying–and we tend to go through our days in a state of frequent distraction. But when you’re in space, you really want to economize on your thinking. You want to focus on the priorities and drop the thoughts that aren’t  really useful to you in this situation.

What were some of the key takeaways from your time at UMD? I didn’t immediately get into the engineering program, but it was a goal that I had and I set my mind to achieving it. I was admitted into the program my sophomore year and later was accepted into the QUEST Honors Program, where I picked up communication and leadership skills. I think these kinds of skills, which aren’t necessarily part of the core engineering curriculum, are very important, especially in today’s environment where there is a great deal of intersection between engineering and business. No matter how technically skilled you are as an engineer, if you can’t communicate your ideas to the people who are making the decisions, you’re not going to be as effective as you could be.

Are there aspects of your identity or personal experience that you feel have given you a unique perspective or competitive edge in your career? My own upbringing has been fairly unique. I grew up more quickly than most people do, and I learned to be independent at an early age. My parents immigrated here from Jamaica, and I was raised by a single mom. She always encouraged me to pursue my aspirations and not be limited by my imagination. I do feel driven by this underlying idea that I can do anything that I set my mind to, with enough determination and perseverance.

You’ve been committed to inspiring and supporting young Black scholars pursuing STEM education with a focus on aerospace. Could you tell us more about that? Education has made all that possible, and it’s opened up doors that might otherwise have remained closed. At Maryland, I was fortunate enough to be part of the Center for Minorities in Science and Engineering scholarship program for three years, and it was a game-changer. It opened up my eyes to opportunities and also made my college experience significantly more affordable.

I want to give back and help open up doors for others. The leadership piece is essential. Right now, only 3% of aerospace engineering executives are Black, and we need to change that. We want to create leaders who can understand the Black experience and the challenges that come with it, and who can be in a position to bring about change for the better.


Published May 24, 2023