Students speak of experiencing Branson’s launch

Students greet Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson before he heads to board the rocket that flew him to the edge of space from Spaceport America near Truth or Consequences on July 11. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

LAS CRUCES – Forty-five students from Las Cruces Public Schools were invited to the Unity 22 mission to space to witness the launch July 11, giving them a “life-changing moment.”

The mission successfully launched and returned to Earth with six crew members aboard, including Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.

“At first, it seemed almost like a normal plane launch,” said Holly Norsworthy, a student at Mayfield High School going into her sophomore year this fall. “Then they kept going higher, and then they just disappeared. They had the livestream going, and (we) watched them as they were in space. It was really, really cool.”

Holly said she and fellow LCPS students loaded onto the buses bound for Spaceport America at 3 a.m. for the hourlong drive north to Sierra County.

Holly and her younger brother, Eli Norsworthy, found out they would be going to see the launch up close just days before. Holly said it was a bit of a whirlwind and then meeting Branson was equally so.

Eli, who will start seventh grade at Picacho Middle School in the fall, said he and the other students didn’t get much time to talk to Branson in the brief moments that they interacted before the launch. The students were able to form a tunnel and fist bump Branson and his five fellow crew members on their way to board the space plane.

“He seemed like a really nice guy,” Eli said about Branson. “Some richer people are kind of snooty and big about themselves, but he was really down-to-earth and happy that everyone was there.”

A collaboration in the works

Rachel Knight, career readiness team member for LCPS, chaperoned a group of students to the event. She, along with another career readiness team member and a third-grade teacher from Monte Vista Elementary, were the chaperones.

bright spotKnight said her team at LCPS has been communicating with Virgin Galactic for about a year, discussing internship opportunities and ways to collaborate. However, Knight said she only found out they would be invited to the launch on July 11 three days before.

“We would love to take in more students, of course, too, but we were limited to that small group,” Knight said. “(We were) just so thankful that, we were given that opportunity to be able to take those because it really was a life-changing moment.”

She said the students that attended were a mix of high school, middle school and elementary school students.

Knight added that she had expected all the students to be wiped out and sleeping on the bus ride home after meeting up at 3 in the morning, but they were all excitedly chatting about the launch the entire time.

“There was just super excitement from all the kids,” Knight said. “It didn’t matter if they were a third grader or all the way up to our high school seniors, they were just all super pumped and kind of on a high, I think, from experiencing that.”

Knight said she hopes LCPS’s relationship with Virgin Galactic can continue. She foresees student internship opportunities in the future, virtual opportunities as early as this fall.

“It’s an incredible opportunity for us to have this partnership to basically grow our own here in this area,” Knight said. “We have students that are already interested in aerospace and things. If they can be able to have these opportunities, while they’re in high school, doing internships, they can continue their education, even at New Mexico State University. That is so important to capture these kids and have these opportunities for them here because so many of our students, they’ve got big dreams and big goals.”

The impact on Las Cruces

Holly and Eli both said they expect Spaceport America and Virgin Galactic will have a big impact on New Mexico and the Las Cruces community as a whole.

“It’s going to really make people more aware of Las Cruces, and they’ll know us, and we’ll have something really big that’s always associated with our city,” Holly said. “It’s really cool that (Branson is) just really trying to get kids involved. Maybe in the future, there will be more chances for school kids to get more involved with space.”

Eli said seeing the Unity 22 made him want to pursue space travel. He added that he had wanted to ask Branson what made him want to go into space in the first place.

The siblings said they’d always thought space and space travel were cool, but it had always seemed very far away from reality.

“It wasn’t really one of those graspable things like not something you can achieve, but now it’s (becoming) commercial,” Holly said. “It really is something that could be available to more people. So that’s really cool.”

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