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Welcome to the Real Space Age

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Following all of this with glee and wonder from her tiny house in Tucson was 65-year-old Sally Krusing, a thin, fit woman with sandy gray hair and piercing green eyes, who retired from IBM in 2004 after 26 years as a manager in marketing. We met at ISPCS last October, where she was one of the few nontechnical people in attendance. We sat outside in the shade and chatted.

She is divorced, with one daughter, two grandchildren. She grew up in Tampa, and her first job after high school was working as a reservation agent for Eastern Airlines, which she did for four years before going to college. She wrote out reservations longhand, then put them on a conveyor belt to process. Her job at IBM sent her all over the world, which suited her well. She’d lived in Fairbanks, Alaska; Greece; Germany. After retiring, she’d devoted much of her life to traveling. She’s been to every continent. Her favorite trip was to Antarctica; she used a photo of herself from there sitting next to a seal as her Christmas card.

She did not realize until very late in her life how important space had been to her. Growing up in Florida, on clear days she could see the rockets climbing over the state. She’d always loved science fiction, she’d read everything by Asimov, she loved the Dune series. In Alaska, she got her pilot license to fly small planes. She’d watched the northern lights. There is controversy in the scientific community about whether they make any sound but she believes she’d heard them; they “rustle,” she said, they are “like curtains overhead.” She thought, I would love to go up there.

Before she retired, a friend asked what she would do if she could do anything, knowing she would not fail, and Krusing, without thinking, said, “I’d be an astronaut.” Which shocked her. Three years ago, she went on a hiking trip to Kilimanjaro. Sitting around a campfire in Tanzania with friends, she was asked what else was left for her to see. She said, “I’m going to space.” En route to Tanzania, she’d read in the in-flight magazine about Branson’s plans for Virgin Galactic.

She sat on it for a while. Life got in the way. Money was an issue. Then, last year, she read about Spaceport America and drove to see it. That sold her. She called Virgin’s 800 number with questions about safety and timing and her deposit. She was satisfied with the answers. “It’s risky, yeah—so is driving your car across America,” she told me. She went cycling in New Zealand for a month. When she came back she mailed her deposit check for $20,000. Her number is 380. She hopes to raise money for the full $200,000, which would move her up the list, otherwise she estimates she will not fly until 2017 at the earliest. “So if you know of a sugar daddy …” she joked. She plans to use her nest egg, which is $100,000. She has contemplated mortgaging her house, but it would not provide enough money, so she has readjusted her lifestyle.

I asked her why she wanted to do this.

“Cliché answer?” she said. “I mean, why not? It’s the last frontier.”

She’d not yet told her mother or siblings or most of her friends. “They’re going to say I’m crazy, I’m weirder than they thought. But that’s who I am, I’m weird, and there are a lot of weirder things I could be doing.”

I asked if she’d imagined the flight. She said she does so constantly.

What should she expect?

Suited up and helmeted, after three days of g-force and safety training, she and five others will walk out the back of the spaceport via the gateway terminal and into the heat and the light of the New Mexico desert. They will climb into SpaceShipTwo. She will buckle herself upright into her seat, behind the open pilot cabin, where a series of checks and countdowns will finish. The tandem craft will proceed to the Bill Richardson Spaceway and the jet-powered ­WhiteKnightTwo will begin speeding, faster and faster, up and over the Earth.

Over the course of an hour, the spacecraft will climb, steeply, so that she will be pushed back into herself, into her seat. She’ll pass through the clouds of troposphere and stratosphere, until 99 percent of the atmosphere is beneath her. At around 50,000 feet, WhiteKnightTwo will level off, and another countdown will start. At T-minus zero, SpaceShipTwo will disengage and drop. There will be a brief fall, and then a valve will open and send nitrous oxide pouring onto a solid rubber compound, exploding in ignition from SpaceShipTwo’s rear, fire shooting out. The noise will roar, and within 65 seconds the ship’s speed will increase to 2,600 miles per hour, bursting through the sound barrier, the gravitational force growing to three and a half times that on Earth, the vehicle turning at 90 degrees and soaring upward, the blue out the windows darkening, until the motors shut off, silence filling the cabin. At 68 miles above the planet, weightlessness—the state of everlasting free fall—will commence. Krusing will feel her helmet lift slightly from her head, some strands of her hair alighting, tickling her face, as the spaceship turns over and she unbuckles her seat belt and floats over to the windows, the planet moving below her, the clouds and continents and seas rushing away, and in the distance, its halo, its arcing, while further still, the star-pocked blackness, a blackness those who’ve seen liken not to nothingness but to velvet.

I asked her if she was scared.

“Not at all. I mean, if it’s my time to die, it’s my time to die. I’m not afraid.”

She continued: “For me, I get really excited when I think about it. The rest of my life is just my life. It’s not boring, because I enjoy what I do. But there’s no real excitement. This,” she said, “is something to look forward to.”


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