‘This is how we get to Mach 3:’ Virgin Galactic’s Jameel Janjua on his long journey into space (exclusive)

New astronaut pilot Jameel Janjua was third time lucky.

Dual Canada-US national Janjua took the pilot’s seat in Virgin Galactic’s latest space flight last month, called Galaxy 07. But it took 15 years and three attempts on his journey to become an astronaut – and that’s only counting the time since he was a semi-finalist. the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut of choice in 2009.

In the years before Janjua docked the VSS Unity spacecraft on June 8, he accumulated more than 5,200 hours across 65 types of aircraft in various military corps. His time at Virgin Galactic was also busy, flying frequently on the VMS Eve mothership in support of other subsonic spaceflights.

Janjua spoke with Space.com on June 27 about his journey to becoming an astronaut, preparing for the new class of Delta spacecraft from Virgo, and what he hopes others will do from his long path to space.

Related: Virgin Galactic launches VSS Unity spaceplane on final sub-real spaceflight with crew of 6 (photos, video)

Space.com: Have you ever applied to be a Canadian Space Agency astronaut?

Janjua: I applied twice. In 2009, this was their first recruitment since 1992 — that’s 17 years. I was there right up to the bitter end. There were four people left on two spots: David Saint-Jacques, Jeremy Hansen, Josh Kutryk and me. Obviously neither Josh nor I were selected for that campaign. Then I was playing again [during the most recent astronaut selection] in 2016-17. Josh was thankfully chosen by Jenni Gibbons. And then I had to go over to Virgin Galactic in October 2020.

My flight, I think, highlights the benefits of the commercial space industry. We have this chorus of people wanting to participate. Government programs are great, but they have funding limits and seat limits and many other factors. It’s great that these commercial space companies provide such a diverse range of voices and backgrounds and experience. This is what we are doing. Perhaps I am a real, tangible example of the benefits that can come from these types of efforts. Fingers crossed.

a space plane with orange fire shooting out the back

a space plane with orange fire jetting out the back

There were many times in my life when I thought, “Ah, space is not going to happen.” I want to share a message of conviction. There will be many young people out there, all over the world.

One of the most important things I can do as a matter of social responsibility and public service is to share a message: “You know what? A lot of times it feels like it’s not going to happen.” I will be fair: Look. Sometimes it won’t. But [you will see] something similar, or in a different way, or with a different embodiment. That will happen.

Related: Canada’s Artemis 2 astronaut was named after a 14-year wait for space

an astronaut in a jet cockpit looking over his shoulder in mid-flightan astronaut in a jet cockpit looking over his shoulder in mid-flight

an astronaut in a jet cockpit looking over his shoulder in mid-flight

Space.com: This was Virgin Galactic’s last flight with VSS Unity and VMS Eve. How are you, as a pilot, preparing for the upcoming Delta program?

Janjua: We’re on track for flight testing in 2025 and commercial service in 2026. That’s the program side. On the development side, it’s great to be a part of something like this. I went to university and got a master’s degree. But there was no class, for example, on how to build and test a spaceship.

Operator input is extremely important, so that’s what pilots provide. We support the design effort, and discuss how we are going to test these vehicles. We will work from integrated testing on ground vehicles to the initial transport flights and long-duration flights. Then enter commercial service.

With Virgin, there is a lot to learn about these systems. These are one-of-a-kind vehicles. We are trying to produce our Delta-class spacecraft. We have the right experience to show as experimental test pilots, but there is a bit of an estimated learning process. We hold ourselves to very high professional standards. We’re thirsty, right? We are hungry for knowledge.

two of the virgin Galactic pilotstwo of the virgin Galactic pilots

two of the virgin Galactic pilots

Space.com: So for flight, I would like to break it into two aspects, first the pilot side of it, then the human side. So let’s start the pilot. Can you give me your objectives?

Janjua: Our goal is to fly a safe and efficient profile. It should be effortless, right? Like it’s just another day in the simulator. But you are not in the sim. You are in a real spaceship going to space at three times the speed of sound. [Commander] Nicola Pecile and I spent a lot of time in the sim and a lot of time together.

I remember one time we were flying a light aircraft together. I thought to myself: “This is a great environment, just a few distractions.” Someone talks on the radio once in a while.

But being two very experienced pilots, we went through every emergency procedure in that book so we never see these things for the first time. Then we practiced them in the sim. As we got closer to the flight date, we really locked in a nominal flight profile and practiced that a lot.

In the days before that, the astronauts of the future — our clients — arrived. We did all the preliminary checks in the previous days. We facilitated Colin Bennett, the cabin crew, who trained astronauts and got them on board.

After retiring, Eve does a lot of the work. Eve spends about 45 to 50 minutes climbing to 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) above Spaceport America. Nicola and I have various things to do along the way, just to make sure all the systems are working properly. And finally, we have such a Halloween set up to launch north from Spaceport America, pointing south.

Related: How many people can fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space plane?

four consecutive virgin Galactic astronauts: Tuna Atasever, Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament and Giorgio Manenti.  names are written in text below picturesfour consecutive virgin Galactic astronauts: Tuna Atasever, Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament and Giorgio Manenti.  names are written in text below pictures

four consecutive virgin Galactic astronauts: Tuna Atasever, Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament and Giorgio Manenti. names are written in text below pictures

[For several spaceflights before this] I was in Halloween as the commander, or the pilot launching a spaceship. Frankly, the Halloween boss is so important in this team. This time it was Andy Edgell’s job – and he did it masterfully – to offload any workload he can from the spacecraft, and climb that hill to 45,000 feet (13,700 meters). And CJ Sturckow was with him, and [because he’s quiet] we joked that CJ wasn’t in the room. CJ would really deny that, but it was great. It was just a really nice combination of personalities and professional traits in those two goals.

This feeling of anxiety was not there [for me], but it is visible. It’s like, “We’re really going to do this.” For me, it is my first time to fly this vehicle. There’s a little voice in the back of your head. It’s like, “I can’t believe this is really happening.” But, I had to make the timeline. Nicola relied on me to do certain things, and I relied on him, Andy and CJ.

CJ released us from motherhood. Nicola asked me to start the engine. I fired the rocket motor. It is brilliant. You feel its acceleration, and it is continuous. I remember thinking to myself. “This is how we get to Mach 3: Show straight up.”

Then, Nicola and I, we had some tasks. I was responsible for ensuring the health of the motor and that the feather re-entry system works as intended and is implemented on time. Nicola took care of the ship’s trajectory, for the most part, and clearly has the option to do anything [as commander]. Then Nicola landed on the spaceship, and she did a great job.

Related: Virgin Galactic’s next spacecraft gets its ‘feather’ (video)

Space.com: And what about the human side? I can see on your socials that you are thinking about it a lot.

Janjua: If you haven’t thought about it, you’re not human. This is really the way in which we are opening up access to space for humanity, for people who would otherwise think, “I don’t belong here. I don’t have a way in here, or anything related to . this.” Nicola and I have an implicit responsibility to guide the people on our crew to ensure that they too experience their flight in a way that they want, but with a human element.

For me, as I said before, this doesn’t happen overnight. This is something that many people have never gotten to do, right? I tried to respect that in the time I had — when it was appropriate to think about that — and give him the time and thoughts he deserved. I’m still doing that, honestly, after that. I’m trying to take some time when I can, think about it and give it the time it deserves, process it.

It’s like your first solo in an aircraft. You take up three pre-check rides with your instructor, and the practice sim. Each step is a step closer to the hopeful inevitability. It was visible. It had a real meaning. It’s hard to describe, right? I try to replay it in my mind. When I watch the videos produced by our communications and media team, they kind of help me get back. Our brain [as pilots] We can focus on the technical side, flying that ship safely and efficiently.


— Virgin Galactic launches VSS Unity spaceplane on final sub-real spaceflight with crew of 6 (photos, video)

— How many people can fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space plane?

— Watch an inspiring video from the final flight of Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane

But there are many moments. I remember looking over my right shoulder at one point, when we were about two minutes from release. Giorgio Manenti was sitting right behind me, and I remember looking at him. I had my visor up, and I purposely kept my visor up the whole time because I didn’t want to forget to put it up when we were in space.

I remember looking back at him, and I winked. He gave me a thumbs up, and he winked. Both of us – we had a mind meld. We were thinking the same thing.

We could talk more about space and describe all the feelings this person had, looking out the window at the vastness of space in the universe, and at that “darkest darkness”. [retired CSA astronaut] Chris Hadfield talks about it in his children’s book. Then the most vivid colors you have ever seen in your life on your own planet. Imagine that the photos have just been actively absorbed. There’s a sense of humility — to me — that makes you feel so insignificant in a healthy, positive way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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