There are around 7.53 billion people living on planet Earth, give or take a few. And to date, about 580 earthlings have intentionally left our atmosphere to explore the great beyond. Thanks to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (VG) program, another 650 have tickets. Count Marin’s Ron Rosano as one of them. Rosano, 59, has been an astronomy and spaceflight educator since 1995. Since 2014 he’s been organizing live video sessions called Spacechats for Galactic Unite, bringing together Virgin Galactic staff and astronauts to hold small-scale question-and-answer sessions, so far atracting more than 9,600 students from classrooms around the world. Other confirmed VG passengers include the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Justin Bieber. In his free time, Rosano also enjoys photography, jazz drumming, mountain biking and backpacking in the High Sierra.
1. What sparked your interest in astronomy?
Seeing the stars at night when I was very young. I was 9 when the first moon landing happened, and I recently found a note I had written to my parents that said, “Wake me up for the moon shot.” My parents recognized my passion and my mom took me to the planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences when I was age 7 or 8.
2. Why didn’t you pursue being an astronaut?
I couldn’t subscribe to the strictness of the military.
3. Who influenced you in your astronomy outreach?
John Dobson and Andy Fraknoi. John taught a nine-week-long telescope-making class at the Academy of Sciences, and I completed a class in 1994. John invented a method to build large telescopes at a low cost. I finished the class with a telescope I still have today. Soon after that, I joined the San Francisco Amateur Astronomers; at one of their events they bring telescopes once a month up to Mount Tam. From there I joined Project Astro, led then by Andy Fraknoi, executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; Project Astro pairs teachers with astronomers to help educate students about space.
4. How did you get involved with Galactic Unite?
In 2014 I participated in a Google Hangout with Virgin Galactic staff, discussing the project in a live videoconference with students in five separate locations across the U.S. Galactic Unite, which partners with Virgin Unite, Virgin’s nonprofit foundation, channels the energy and passion of VG passengers to inspire and open possibilities for young people. To date, I’ve had talks with about 9,000 students, many from the Las Cruces Public School District in New Mexico, near where the VG launches will be taking place. Part of our work has been doing Spacechats with sixth-grade students, and whether they were interested in space or not, one of our overall messages was “Follow your passion: find something you love doing, be ready to work hard at being really good at it — you never know what you’ll end up doing as a career.”
5. How long is the flight?
Just under two hours.
6. How much is a ticket?
They started at $200,000 and now cost $250,000. Initially you could have put $20,000 down and paid the remainder when you fly. The most common characteristic of all the people going up is they are for the most part space enthusiasts and adventurers, with a different motivation for going to space than career NASA astronauts. Sure, there are wealthy people, but some have saved carefully or gone so far as to have taken out second mortgages on their house to make their flights possible.
7. What does going into space mean to you?
For me, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to see Earth from space. A Stephen Hawking quote comes to mind: “You’re going to be in the presence of the universe.”
8. Do you know whom you’ll be going up with?
Not yet for my flight. Up to six people go at one time. I’m ticketed as number 362, which would be about the 60th flight.
9. When will the flights start?
Richard Branson will be the first passenger and hopes to go before the end of 2019. Virgin Galactic is a space line, like an airline — operating from a spaceport, like an airport. There are two other spaceships currently under construction.