David Mackay, born in Scotland, studied Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Glasgow. He joined the RAF in 1979 flying the Harrier GR3 in Germany and the Falklands, serving for sixteen years before then joining Virgin Atlantic Airways as Captain, for sixteen years also. In 2009 Mackay joined Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, ‘The world’s first commercial Space line’ of which he is now Chief Pilot, and expected to be the first to pilot the commercial space shuttle, with passengers Richard Branson and his family. More than 700 people – including Hollywood A-listers Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio – have bought tickets for Virgin Galactic space voyage flights, which sell for $250,000. Ashton Kutcher was one of the first celebrities to book his ticket – and the 500th person overall – and he has since been joined by Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, Russell Brand and Lady Gaga.
Tragically, on October 31st, Virgin Galactic suffered it’s biggest setback when it’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane disintegrated over the Mojave Desert in October, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and injuring Pilot Peter Siebold, who miraculously survived the crash. After the Crash, David Mackay spoke with BBC News about the future of Virgin Galactic and said, “It is hard. It has turned out to be harder than we thought it would. But if it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago. We’re enjoying the challenge.”
David spoke with Kelly Forshaw of Red Touch Media about his passion for what he does.
Kelly: One of the most impressive job titles that I’ve heard for a long time. There are not many people that can say – that they are a test pilot for such a massive project.
David: Yeah it’s a great job, I enjoy it, I was fortunate I was in the right place at the right time. I have been with the Virgin group for twenty years and got into this job through Virgin Atlantic and it’s very exciting. It’s hard work but it’s really exciting.
Kelly: Did you ever imagine that one day you’d be doing what you are doing and potentially, going into space?
David: This dream started when I was very young. I’m a child of the sixties and so I was brought up in the era when Gemini and Apollo were flying, Apollo flying to the moon. So as a child I was fascinated with these images of this massive rocket taking off from America and flying to the moon and landing there and eventually a car driving on the moon. For a young kid, that made a huge impression on me. I was brought up in a part of Scotland where low-flying aircraft flew over head on a daily basis, so I was always fascinated by flying. Then I found out that those early astronauts were ex-military test pilots. So I came up with this plan to join the air force, become a test pilot and then become an astronaut. So I have dreamt about it for a very long time, but I must admit I never imagined it would happen, in Virgin. I always thought Virgin was a very exciting company, interesting things would happen, but I never imagined that we’d be building spaceships and flying them.
Kelly: It’s almost like you foretold the future!
David: I wouldn’t be so bold as to say that but I guess you know, I was a dreamer. I’m always a ‘glass half full’ kind of person and I just worked at it and hoped that one day it would happen. There was a time in my life when I thought it would never happen. Then suddenly this opportunity arose so – I was in the right place at the right time, I was very fortunate.
Kelly: Really exciting. Tell us, you don’t want passengers to take photographs; you believe that experience you need to experience first hand?
David: We are encouraging people to look at the view of Earth from space, with their own eyes as apposed to through a viewfinder. The analogy I use, was everybody has seen a photo of the Grand Canyon, but until you see it with your own eyes you can’t really appreciate the scale of it and the grandeur. Astronauts that have been into Space say the same thing about Earth, you can look at photographs of the Earth from Space but until you’ve seen it with your own eyes you kind of appreciate how fantastic it is. We don’t want people to waste their time trying to take a good photo of Earth, looking through a viewfinder of a camera, take in the experience with your own eyes and we will capture the experience for you.
Kelly: You’ll be documenting the trip for them?
David: Yes, the inside of the Space vehicle will be full of cameras and it will be the most heavily photographed moment of your life and at the end of it of course you will have the DVD, the still photographs – you know, something to reflect on. The primary thing is, you’ll probably only do this once in your life so look at it with your own eyes. Take it all in.
Kelly: I’ve seen a few videos that Virgin Galactic have put out, to try and show people and explain to people, not just what goes into it but what they intend and the end ambition. Why do you think it’s important to explain to people, that process?
David: The vehicle will carry two pilots and six passengers, no flight attendant. So as a passenger, you’re really looking after yourself to a large extent. We will be able to communicate with people, but you need to know how to operate the seat, how to communicate with each other and with the crew so that’s very important. We also want to set people expectations right and some of the forces involved in a rocket ride are very high and we want people to be prepared for that, to have an idea of what that feels like so they’re not over-surprised. We want all surprises to be enjoyable, so having an insight to what those forces are like is very important. We also want people to have reasonable expectations of what’s going to happen and what they’re going to be able to do- so I think it’s important to give people some training before that experience.
Kelly: I suppose nothing can truly prepare you, but as much preparation as possible?
David: Yes, you want to over prepare for it you know, it will be a really enjoyable experience, but if you knew nothing about it and just went in completely blind and unprepared it might be overwhelming and we don’t want it to be overwhelming, we want it to be completely enjoyable.
Kelly: Lastly, you’ve lived in the States for how long now?
David: Four years full time.
Kelly: Is there anything you miss about being in the UK?
David: I do miss clouds and rain, but only for a very short amount of time!
Kelly: As soon as you get clouds and rain, that wares off?
David: Yes after a couple of days, I’ve probably had enough!
Kelly: Well, thank you so much for speaking to us. Good luck and congratulations with Virgin Galactic.