An unlikely space traveler: Meet New Mexico's Jamila Gilbert - Albuquerque Journal

An unlikely space traveler: Meet New Mexico’s Jamila Gilbert

When Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rockets into suborbit later this week, the spaceship will be carrying a diverse crew of mission specialists, among them Jamila Gilbert — a Las Cruces native of Mexican heritage.

The 34-year-old New Mexico State University graduate will join the ranks of the first 100 women — and only 16 Hispanic individuals — to shoot for the stars since the space era began some 60-plus years ago.

Gilbert called that a “tremendous honor” in an online interview with the Journal, where she discussed her background growing up in New Mexico and her work as a water-color portrait artist and later a marketing and communications team member at “Visit Las Cruces” before landing her Job with Virgin Galatic in 2019.

And, of course, she shared her thoughts and emotions about the upcoming spaceflight and imminent launch of commercial service for paying passengers this summer following this final Virgin Galactic in-house crew flight to space.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Las Cruces — in Downtown Las Cruces, actually — and in time, that’s where my work took me as well.

My mother is from Central Mexico and my father is American, so we spent a lot of time back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., but New Mexico has always been my home.

So you spoke Spanish from a very young age.

It was my first language. It wasn’t until I was like five or six that I started speaking English, because that’s what they teach in school here.

I was born in El Paso, although my parents lived in Alamogordo. I graduated from Las Cruces High School in 2007.

Tell me about your studies at NMSU.

I studied museum conservation. I also studied anthropology and took a lot of chemistry and entomology as well to build a kind of diverse background for museum studies, collections, restoration and conservation.

I also studied languages and linguistics, which is a huge passion of mine. I’ve always liked the idea of being able to communicate with people in a vast portion of the world.

You graduated from NMSU in 2011. What then?

I was a water-color portraitist for a few years. I had a website for folks to upload photos of their loved ones or their pets. I painted lots of dogs and other portraits from the photos of homes and even a few yachts.

I learned a lot about website design and marketing and just being the face of a small company.

Following that, I worked in commercial real estate, and then I started working for “Visit Las Cruces” in marketing and communications. I worked with a bunch of really passionate people there promoting our community, outdoor recreation, protected night skies, festivals, events, the wine history of southern New Mexico – just the culture of this entire region.

Visitors would ask about Virgin Galactic, so I started telling people that commercial spaceflight is coming to our own backyard. But I never thought I would work for Virgin Galactic back then, or, fast forward, that I would be offered this amazing experience and opportunity.

How did you get started at Virgin Galactic?

When a position in internal communications opened up, some folks suggested I apply, so I did, and I’ve been working here for nearly four years now.

It’s been really amazing. I’ve gotten to see two spaceflights myself, and I’ve worked with folks across our different locations in Orange County, Calif., and in the company’s London offices.

I oversee the communications that go out to all our teammates. That can range from corporate and departmental communications to feel-good cultural communications and things that are going on in our various communities and facilities. I oversee the team that manages all that.

Let’s talk about your upcoming trip. How do you feel?

Great. But spaceflight, any way I say it out loud – ‘space’ or ‘spaceflight,’ it just still sounds so foreign, which is so funny, because I’ve been working with the company and talking about this for four years. But now that I’ve actually been given the opportunity, it feels wildly foreign and yet very familiar at the same time because of my role, and it’s really, really exciting.

Everyday I wake up and I just think about it all day long.

It’s coming up very soon, so we’re preparing for that and doing our training.

I’m actually not from a technical background as so many folks from our company — or people who have flown to space before — have been. But as someone who studied linguistics, and as an artist, I like to think that my creative brain is actually my superpower.

So experiencing spaceflight might allow me to look past the mechanics while we’re going through all the pieces of it from end-to-end. It’s not just the actual spaceflight on the day itself. It’s the training leading up to it, the ground-based training with our astronauts and training crew, the medical consultations and the moments with our hospitality team.

It’s all that, so I’m really excited just to bring my own perspective to what all that training is like.

Are you scared?

I’m excited. Really, really excited.

There is one particular moment I’m looking forward to, which is when our VMS mothership carries the VSS spaceship up to release altitude, which is about 50,000 feet, and it releases the vehicle. They’re going to be counting that down. We’re going to know it’s coming.

I can imagine that after three days of training, I wake up that morning and get going, and that we’re starting that climb and you know that you’re going on a countdown. It’s that moment that I’m looking forward to the most. That really kicks off what is going to be an incredible body feeling, a ride, a very visceral experience. I’m very much looking forward to that.

As a team member, what do you hope to accomplish? What specific things will you be looking at from the customer experience perspective?

Honestly, it’s end-to-end. It’s basically as if I’ve just purchased a ticket.

We’ve already been doing conversations with our astronaut’s office. They’re out of London, and we do calls with them. They ask us specific questions, they walk us through what the flight profile is going to be like.

I think all that is testament to what the company feels is important – to get all of those touch points down pat and make sure that they feel right, they sound right and they look right.

Everything to date has been incredible. I’m pretty sure our customers are not going to be disappointed. They’re going to love it.

How do you feel as a Latina woman helping diversify access to space?

While it is an honor to experience something so few humans have, marking diversity in spaceflight is, for me, historic and a great point of pride. As one of the first 100 women, one of 16 Hispanic and Latinx people, and one of the very few non-technical people to fly, my role in this mission marks a shift in what spaceflight has looked like to date and is a promising sign of the opportunities to come. Quite simply, I’m proud to be a part of this new space era and proud to bring others along with us.

Virgin Galactic is forging a new era in commercial space, opening it up to real people … rather than just people from technical backgrounds as in the past. It’s kind of a historical moment. How do you feel about that as the team member representing the “average” customer?

So few people have had the opportunity to see the Earth from above, to experience spaceflight or anything near it.

That’s what the Virgin Group believes in — changing that global perspective, changing people’s mindsets – by taking people above and seeing the world from a place where you can’t see borders, you can’t see languages, and you can’t see skin tone. In a way, I think that’s going to change human consciousness once it’s done often and repeatedly.

We currently have 800 customers from around the world with 66 nations represented who are going to come here, experience that and go back to their corners of the world and share that experience with others.

I asked before if you were scared. I would be. I’m a coward. But you have no fear of this at all?

I know it’s going to be an emotional experience — an experience that will probably be a little difficult to put into words — but I’m excited. I look forward to this and I’m counting down the days.

We have a very talented group of not only pilots who are there with us, but the folks in the Mission Control Center and all our engineers and all our leadership who have spent years to make this the most special experience. I very much look forward to experiencing that myself and seeing what it’s all about, because the team has worked so darn hard on it.

Final question: Red or green?


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