‘This Is How We’ll Reach Mach 3:’ Virgin Galactic’s Jameel Janjua on His Long Journey to Space (Exclusive)

It was third time lucky for new pilot and now astronaut Jameel Janjua.

Janjua, who holds dual Canadian and American citizenship, flew in the pilot’s seat on Virgin Galactic’s most recent space flight, dubbed Galactic 07, last month. But his journey to becoming an astronaut has taken 15 years and three attempts — and that’s just the time since he was a semifinalist in the Canadian Space Agency’s astronaut selection process in 2009.

In the decades before Janjua became copilot of the VSS Unity spacecraft on June 8, he amassed more than 5,200 hours in 65 aircraft types in various military service units. His time with Virgin Galactic was also busy, often flying the mothership VMS Eve in support of other suborbital spaceflights.

Janjua spoke with Space.com on June 27 about his journey to becoming an astronaut, preparing for Virgin’s new Delta-class spaceships, and what he hopes others will take away from his long road to space.

Related: Virgin Galactic launches VSS Unity spacecraft for final suborbital spaceflight with crew of 6 (photos, video)

Space.com: Have you ever applied for an astronaut position with the Canadian Space Agency?

Janjua: I applied twice. In 2009, it was the first recruitment they had done since 1992 — that’s 17 years. I was there until the very end. There were four people left for two spots: David Saint-Jacques, Jeremy Hansen, Josh Kutryk and me. Josh and I obviously didn’t get selected for that campaign. Then I played again [during the most recent astronaut selection] in 2016-17. Josh was fortunately selected with Jenni Gibbons. And then in October 2020 I got to go to Virgin Galactic.

My flight, I think, highlights the benefits of the commercial space industry. We have a chorus of people who want to participate. Government programs are great, but they have funding limits and seat limits and a whole bunch of other factors. It’s great that these commercial space companies are bringing in a diverse group of voices, backgrounds and experiences. That’s what we’re doing. Maybe I’m a real, tangible example of the benefits that can come from this kind of effort. Fingers crossed.

a space plane with orange fire shooting out of the back

a space plane with orange fire shooting out of the back

There were many moments in my life where I thought, “Ah, space is not going to happen.” I want to share a message of determination. There are going to be a lot of young people, 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 of, “You know what? There are a lot of times when it feels like it’s not going to happen.” I’ll be honest with you: Look. Sometimes it’s not going to happen. But [you will see] something like that, or in some other way, or with some other embodiment. That will happen.

Related: Canadian astronaut Artemis 2 got its name after a 14-year wait on a space journey

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

an astronaut in a jet cockpit looking over his shoulder during a flight

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

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

It’s really important to have input from the operator, so that’s what we pilots provide. We support the design effort and discuss how we’re going to test these vehicles. We work from the integrated ground vehicle testing through the first carrier flights and full-endurance flights. And then the entry into commercial service.

At Virgin, there’s a lot to learn about these systems. These are unique vehicles. We want to produce our Delta-class spaceships. We have the right experience to come out as experimental test pilots, but there’s a bit of a deliberate learning curve. We hold ourselves to very high professional standards. We’re thirsty, right? We’re hungry for knowledge.

two headshots of Virgin Galactic pilotstwo headshots of Virgin Galactic pilots

two headshots of Virgin Galactic pilots

Space.com: So for your flight, I want to maybe break it down into two aspects, first the pilot side of it, then the human side. So let’s start with the pilot. Can you talk me through your objectives?

Janjua: Our goal is to fly a safe and effective profile. It should be effortless, right? Like it’s just a day in the simulator. But you’re not in the sim. You’re in a real spaceship that’s going into 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 we were flying in a small plane together once, and I thought to myself, “This is a great environment, just a little bit of a distraction.” Every now and then someone would talk on the radio.

But because we are two very experienced pilots, we went through all the emergency procedures in that book, so we never see these things for the first time. Then we practiced them in the sim. As the date of the flight approached, we really focused on flying the nominal profile and practiced that a lot.

In the days before, the future astronauts arrived — our clients. We had done all the pre-checks in the days before. We facilitated with Colin Bennett, the cabin lead, who trained the astronauts and got them on board.

After launch, Eve does most of the work. Eve climbs to 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) above Spaceport America for about 45 or 50 minutes. Nicola and I do various things along the way to make sure all the systems are working properly. And finally, Eve sets us up for launch north of Spaceport America, with the point facing south.

Related: How many people can fly in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spaceplane?

four headshots of virgin galactic astronauts in a row: Tuna Atasever, Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament and Giorgio Manenti. names are in the text below the photosfour headshots of virgin galactic astronauts in a row: Tuna Atasever, Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament and Giorgio Manenti. names are in the text below the photos

four headshots of virgin galactic astronauts in a row: Tuna Atasever, Andy Sadhwani, Irving Pergament and Giorgio Manenti. names are in the text below the photos

[For several spaceflights before this] I was in Eve as a commander, or a pilot dropping a spaceship. Honestly, the position of commander of Eve is so important on this team. This time, Andy Edgell’s job — and he did a masterful job — was to push as much work off the spaceship as he could and climb that hill to 45,000 feet. And CJ Sturckow was with him, and [because he’s quiet] We joked that CJ wasn’t in the room. CJ would strongly deny that, but it was great. It was just a really nice mix of personalities and professional qualities in those two cockpits.

There was no such feeling of fear [for me]but it’s palpable. It’s like, “We’re really going to do this.” For me, it’s the first time flying this vehicle. There’s a little voice in the back of your head. It’s like, “I can’t believe this is actually happening.” But I had to make the timeline. Nicola trusted me to do certain things, and I trusted him and Andy and CJ.

CJ freed us from the mother ship. Nicola asked me to ignite the engine. I ignited the rocket motor. It’s impressive. You feel the acceleration and it’s sustained. I remember thinking to myself, “This is how we get to Mach 3: straight up.”

When Nicola and I, we had a division of labor. I was responsible for ensuring the health of the engine and that the feather re-entry system worked as intended and was activated on time. Nicola was mostly responsible for the trajectory of the ship, and of course he has the authority to do everything [as commander]. Then Nicola landed the spaceship and she did fantastic.

Related: Virgin Galactic’s Next Spaceship Gets Its ‘Feather’ (Video)

Space.com: And what about the human side? I see from your socials that you’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Janjua: If you didn’t think about it, you’re not human. This is really how we open up access to space for humanity, for people who would otherwise have thought, “I don’t belong here. I don’t have access to this, or anything to do with this.” Nicola and I have an implicit responsibility to guide the people in our crew to make sure that they also experience their flight in a way that they want to, but with a human aspect.

For me, as I said, this doesn’t happen overnight. This is something that not many people have ever been able to do, right? I tried to respect that in the time that I had — when it was appropriate to think about it — and give it the time and the thought that it deserved. I still do, honestly, in the aftermath. I try to take some time when I can, to think about it and give it the time that it deserves, to process it.

It’s like your first solo in an airplane. You build up through a pre-check ride with your instructor and the rehearsal sim. Every step is a step closer to what is hopefully the inevitable. It was tangible. It was really meaningful. It’s hard to describe, right? I try to play it in my mind. When I watch the videos that our communications and media team produces, they help me go back a little bit. Our brains [as pilots] are programmed so that we can concentrate on the technical side, so that we can operate the ship safely and effectively.


— Virgin Galactic launches VSS Unity spacecraft for final suborbital spaceflight with crew of 6 (photos, video)

—How many people can fly in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spacecraft?

— Watch an awe-inspiring video of 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 away. Giorgio Manenti was right behind me and I remember looking at him. I had my visor up and I kept my visor up on purpose all the time because I didn’t want to forget to put it up when we were in space.

I remember looking back at him and winking. He gave me a thumbs up and winked. The two 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 man had, looking out the window at the vastness of space in the universe, and that “darkest darkness” that [retired CSA astronaut] Chris Hadfield talks about it in his children’s book. Then the most vibrant colors you’ve ever seen in your life on your own planet. Imagine the pictures just peppered with vibrancy. There’s a sense of humility that — for me — makes you feel so insignificant in a healthy, positive way.

This interview has been edited and shortened.

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