27 February 2023

YOU Asked, WE Answered: Q&A With Colin Bennett


VMS Eve is back! Back with VSS Unity at Spaceport America!

We asked Astronaut and Flight Test Engineer, Colin Bennett about the checks this powerful mothership is going through in the lead-up to beginning monthly commercial and research missions.

Eve returned home today to Spaceport America. What goes into planning a relocation flight and what exactly were you testing on the ship?

When we relocate the mothership from Mojave, California to Spaceport America, there’s a lot of coordination required. We need to submit requests to use the restricted airspaces in Mojave and Spaceport America and coordinate dual teams in two states.

Today’s flight was both a flight to relocate Eve to Spaceport America and the second functional check flight designed to validate the performance of the vehicle following recent modifications. We made many enhancements and upgrades last year to increase Eve’s flight rate capability that included a new launch pylon, new horizontal stabilizers, as well as upgraded avionics and mechanical systems. During today’s flight and the flight a couple of weeks ago, the pilots moved through a series of procedures and maneuvers to ensure the upgraded vehicle performed according to the expected models.

What was your role in today’s flight?

I was the Flight Director in our mission control center at Spaceport America. This role involves overseeing the engineers in the room and communicating with the pilots. We also had a Flight Director in our Mojave mission control center.

Have you ever flown in Eve?

Yes! Flying in the mothership is very cool. I’ve flown in a lot of different aircraft and of course, one very special spaceship, but Eve is unique! We sit on the left side, behind the pilots. We have a really good view of where the spaceship would be if we were carrying it. And the feeling is incredible. Without the spaceship, Eve is so light and powerful that the angle it’s able to climb at is very steep and very fast!

So, if you’re strapped into your seat, beyond enjoying that great view, how do you perform tests?

As a Flight Test Engineer, [today, my colleague Scott Raetzman flew in that seat], the role is to help the pilots execute the test cards by recording information for them. We also use a tablet that collects data; it monitors things like engine parameters and hydraulic pressures. The pilots have this data as well, but the FTE is an extra set of eyes to help the pilots during their busy flight test activities.

Speaking of the MCC, we have two-- one in Mojave and one at Spaceport. Seems like a lot of cooks in the kitchen!

(Laughs) Not at all. We perform testing in both locations, so having both mission control centers made a lot of sense. It’s like you’re sitting right next to each other even though you’re in different states. In today’s case, when Eve left Mojave, that MCC took the lead. Then, as we passed through the Arizona-New Mexico border, the Spaceport MCC reestablished telemetry. It’s a great advantage to have the ability to monitor missions from either or both locations!

When Eve flew its first test flight in mid-February, a lot of people watched via flight tracker websites and, honestly, it looked like someone playing on an Etch a Sketch! Why so many random turns in such a small area?

The area around Mojave is special restricted airspace. A number of operators, including the military use it and so do we. But it is a defined airspace and we have to stay within it. So, depending on the tests we’re performing, it can look like a lot of zig-zags, but it’s all intentional. To gather the test data we need for our computer models, we have to fly Eve in very particular test conditions, with specific airspeed, altitude and headings, for example.

Now that Eve is back at Spaceport, with VSS Unity, what’s next?

We’ll perform some more functional check flights which include pilot training. Then we move into ground testing with Unity mated underneath Eve’s giant wing. We’ll test the new pylon (the device that attaches Unity to Eve), running checks on the communication and camera systems, the cabin environmental controls and more.

Then, the home stretch. Eve will fly with Unity attached. They will fly to altitude and release Unity to perform a solo glide back to land at Spaceport. And finally, a fully-crewed rocket powered flight to space! These final validation flights run the vehicles through all final system and operational checks that provide us the data to finalize our models, which will clear the vehicles for commercial service!