No Phones in Space: Virgin Galactic Designs Cabin to keep Passengers in the Moment

Spaceship includes 16 cameras in the cabin to catch all the action and a giant mirror so space tourists can watch themselves float

By guest author Kathie Deighton from Wall Street Journal

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. on Tuesday revealed its design for the passenger cabin in SpaceShipTwo, the suborbital craft it is building to send tourists into space.

The unveiling marks the next step in Richard Branson’s protracted quest to make commercial space travel a reality. The coronavirus pandemic briefly paused the program earlier this year, after a major setback in 2014, when a crash killed a pilot.

Safety fears have since been allayed, at least for some: Virgin Galactic said about 600 people have spent as much as USD 250000 a ticket, though the timing of their trips is unclear: The company hasn’t confirmed when it plans to begin launching tourists into space.

Now, for the first time, customers get to see where they will spend their 90-minute trip out of Earth’s atmosphere. The designers said they spent years creating a cabin that balanced familiar elements from air travel with the considerations of a visit to space.

The cabin, which houses six reclining seats tailored to each passenger’s height and weight, aims to provide the astronauts with a sort of photo frame for the Earth as the craft climbs out of the atmosphere.

The black halo-style frames of the 12 passenger windows are designed to blend into the darkness of outer space. Interior LED lighting will switch off at the flight’s peak, putting the focus on the Earth.

But despite the cinematic setup, passengers won’t be able to take their own photos. Smartphones and most other personal effects are banned from the flight, the company said, to prevent them from flying loose in the cabin.

Smartphones can’t do the spectacle justice in any case, said Jeremy Brown, Virgin Galactic’s design director. “The intense dark blackness of space and the intense brightness of the Earth is something you cannot capture on a hand-held device,” he said.

Instead, 16 cameras installed throughout the cabin and two more outside will record video and take still photos throughout the flight. The cameras are built into the passenger window frames, angled to capture a portrait of each novice astronaut with the Earth in the background.

“We want customers to savor every moment of this experience and one way of doing that is saying, ‘Relax, you can ensure that this experience is fully recorded,’” Mr. Brown said.

At the height of the flight, passengers will be encouraged to unbuckle their harnesses and float in zero gravity. A circular mirror covering the entire back of the cabin will allow passengers to see themselves gliding around. Soft furnishings are intended to limit injury, while windows, seats and other objects double as grips for maneuvering while floating.

Stephen Attenborough, commercial director for Virgin Galactic, said the passenger experience was developed alongside the spaceship’s engineering components and design.

“We started thinking about the consumer experience from the moment we started the company, because Virgin is a consumer brand at heart,” Mr. Attenborough said.

The company hired London-based design agency Seymourpowell Ltd. to collaborate on the cabin design shortly after Mr. Branson, founder of Virgin Group Ltd., formed the Virgin Galactic unit in 2004.

The designers interviewed astronauts to understand basic needs in space, such as stretchy uniforms and easy-to-buckle five-point harnesses. But the research also helped designers pinpoint the most awe-inspiring moments on a journey into space, including the quiet right before the rocket motor fires, the sky’s shift from blue to purple to black on rapid ascent, and the bath of natural light reflected from the Earth.

These moments will be highlighted when passengers undergo three-day training sessions to prepare for the flight at Virgin Galactic’s base, Spaceport America, in New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert.

During the flight itself, passengers will encounter mood lighting, seat-back information screens and commentary from the ground crew.

The pilots, who will sit in an open flight deck, have been selected partly for their communication skills and ability to keep first-time astronauts calm. Last month, Virgin Galactic completed its second successful test flight, reaching a height of more than 55 miles. NASA defines outer space as anything 50 miles above sea level.

Professionals will test the training program and the cabin design before it opens to commercial passengers. Virgin Galactic has given no time frame, although Chief Executive George Whitesides told investors in February that flying Mr. Branson into space on a commercial flight was the company’s priority for 2020. It suspended operations one month later to help fight the spread of the new coronavirus.

Ticket sales were put on ice in 2014, after pilot Michael Alsbury was killed during a test flight. While the company hasn’t said when they will resume, 400 people have paid a refundable $1,000 deposit to be at the front of the line when they do.

The cabin design is meant to create a reassuring atmosphere during the flight, but it is the pilots who will do the most to placate any passenger nerves, Mr. Brown said.

“We picked them deliberately because they have exceptional people skills,” he said. “They’re very cool people.”