Dan Alix: Virgin Galactic Pilot Flies High

Virgin Galactic is the world’s first publicly traded space tourism company.

For $450,000, you can experience the thrill (and weightlessness) of a suborbital flight. Or at least, join a list of about 800 others who are waiting to blast off too.

But if you’re Dan Alix, you can actually take the controls

And get paid for it.

The 2001 Staples High School graduate is a test pilot for the company. He flies the mothership, which carries the spaceship and launches it from the air.

Eventually, he hopes to pilot the spaceship itself.

Dan Alix with the VSS Unity. The mothership is 60 feet long, with a wingspan of 43 feet. 

Dan’s path to the sky got a boost at Staples from physics instructor Dave Scrofani.

(Dan — who played soccer, hockey and volleyball — was a physics classmate of Mariangela Lisanti. The first person ever to win both the Intel Science Talent Search and Siemens competitions, she is now a theoretical physicist and professor at Princeton University.)

Dan did his undergraduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Air Force ROTC helped pay for college; in return, he spent 13 years on active duty. He is still a reservist.

A test pilot in places like Italy and South Korea, Dan flew F-16s and F-35s. He was deployed to both Afghanistan and Libya.

At Edwards Air Force Base — where Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier — Dan worked on airplane design. The mix of engineering and adventure was perfect for him.

After leaving active duty in 2018, Dan took a similar job testing new planes in the private sector. He joined Virgin Galactic last February.

Both the mothership and spaceship are designed with plenty of pilot input, he says. Because so many space pilots are ex-military, the cockpits and operations are similar.

Space tourism is one arm of the Virgin Galactic flights. Currently, there is one flight a month. The goal is for many more — perhaps one a day.

There is also a “very robust” research component to the flights. With private companies, universities and the government all interested in a variety of projects, that has the potential to be even more profitable than space tourism.

Zero gravity is familiar territory to Dan, from fighter jets. But he looks forward to the view of earth from space.

Every passenger — including, most recently, a mother and daughter from Antigua and Barbuda who won a contest to fly (for free) into space — has the same “universal, gigantic” experience, Dan says: “Wow!”

Pilots and paying customers alike prepare “psychologically, emotionally an spiritually” for space flight, Dan says. But there apparently is nothing like actually being there.

“We’ve all seen photos of the curvature of the earth,” he adds. “But we haven’t taken them ourselves.”

Virgin Galactic’s last 2 flights were led by first-time space pilots.

“To take a test pilot — so disciplined — and see their reaction was so telling,” Dan says. “It takes a lot to get us excited. But this was much more emotional than I expected.”

Dan says it is “cool and exciting for me to be able to bring that kind of joy to people.

“The military is so important. But it’s nice to take those skills, and use them on a different kind of mission. And the more people that can have that experience, the better.”

(“06880” often chronicles the intriguing careers of Staples High graduates. Please click here to support our work. Thank you!)

3 responses to “Dan Alix: Virgin Galactic Pilot Flies High

  1. Wow. Another plane story by Dan. Thanks. The idea is to make space travel. Extreme capitalism at its best

  2. Robert M Gerrity

    WOW!! Another Staples HS student story!!! Spanning the Globe. Reaching for the Stars.* Pumbing the Oceans’ depths. Still employed by Disney. Still hoofing o or lighting up Broadwsy. Still just doing stuff. Congrats to us all and to nlthext doers and achievers, the Class of 2024. Shape our futures by shaping yours. It will still be a long, strange trip to 2084.

    *Tip of the hat to Prof. Alisanti

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