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Kelly Latimer flies at the cutting edge of aviation — and soon, space

Samantha Masunaga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

A friend asked Latimer in 2014 if she would be interested in applying to a pilot job with Virgin Galactic. That year, the company's spaceship had broken apart during a test flight, killing the copilot and injuring the pilot. At the time, Latimer was unsure whether Virgin Galactic would be able to recover from the accident, but a tour of the company's Mojave facility changed her mind.

She saw new rocket motors being built and that a test team was being developed. She talked to company leadership about their priorities and the test program.

"I was surprised at just how serious and how much effort was going into moving forward," she said. "And I was like, 'This is the real deal. These guys are really going to do this. And I want in.' "

A cause of the accident was later determined -- the copilot had prematurely opened the spaceship's "feather system," which helps slow the craft down when it reenters Earth's atmosphere. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the spacecraft's builder, Scaled Composites, and after the accident, Virgin Galactic brought manufacturing in-house.

"Accidents like that ... they're huge emotional events for any organization," Latimer said. "The key thing is finding out what happened to cause it. That for me was the biggest thing -- that it was something that was fixable."

ROCKET DREAMS

Latimer still has a chance to become an astronaut. Sometime next year, she will probably get her turn to fly Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo to suborbital space, after which she will earn commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration. Until then, she will be busy flying tests of Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl, which is expected to have its first launch later this year. That company's mascot is Rocket, the raccoon stuffed animal from the film "Guardians of the Galaxy," because the acronym for the launch controls is RACUN.

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"Even though I didn't end up being a NASA astronaut, which was kind of a crushing defeat, I realized, wow, by actually chasing that, I'm sitting on this mountain of experience and education and skills," she said. "I would not have known to go do all of this if I hadn't been chasing that astronaut dream."

PERSONAL LIFE

Latimer married Ray Blew almost two years ago, and the couple have a condo in Huntington Beach. When her work on the program takes her to the Antelope Valley, she stays in a friend's spare room near Mojave. When she can, Latimer enjoys surfing.

(c)2019 Los Angeles Times

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