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Vaughn achieves boyhood dream, soars into space and is ‘blown away’ by view

Tom Coyne

Robie Vaughn '74 looks in awe from space at the planet Earth. (Photo provided by Virgin Galactic)


Robie Vaughn ’74 achieved his boyhood dream of traveling to space, becoming one of only a handful of people who can say they’ve been to the top of the world and out of this world.

Vaughn launched into space on Jan. 26 aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity along with three other crew members and two pilots. A video about the trip is available here. He climbed Mount Everest in 2007.

“As far as we know, there's only been four or five people that have done both, so that’s pretty cool,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn, a Culver Educational Foundation board of trustees member for nearly 30 years, carried a Culver flag with him both times.

Vaughn, owner of Vaughn Capital Partners LLC in Dallas, tried not to have any preconceived ideas about what to expect after reading a quote from an Apollo 15 astronaut who said: “You see what you expect to see.”

“I was trying not to expect anything or bias my expectations,” he said.

Unity took off from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico at 10 a.m. Mountain time, attached to the VMS Eve. It took about 30 minutes for the Eve to reach an altitude of 44,493 feet, or about 8.5 miles. That’s when they heard a loud bang when Unity detached from Eve.

“I was ready for the bang but I wasn't ready for the floor to drop out from under us,” Vaughn said. “That was kind of a surprise.”


The VSS Unity fires its rocket motor after detaching from VMS Eve. (Photo provided by Virgin Galactic)


A couple of seconds later, Unity fired its rocket motor and soared to an altitude of 55.2 miles, 5.2 miles above where NASA says space starts. A G-force of 2.5 hit him squarely in the chest initially then rose to 4.5 when the spacecraft went vertical. The rocket fired for about 60 seconds and the fuel ran out at about 130,000 feet, or about 24.6 miles. But the spacecraft continued to accelerate because there was less and less atmosphere and friction.

The speed increased to Mach 2.98, nearly three times the speed of sound, or about 2,268 miles an hour.

“That’s when the pilot let us unclip and float around the cabinet for three minutes,” Vaughn said. “It seemed like 30 seconds.”

He said everything was happening so fast it was hard for the mind to comprehend.

“One second it's like you're on a commercial airline flight looking out the window at mountain tops and clouds, and a minute later you're in the black of space,” he said. “Your brain is like, ‘Hey, wait a minute, how did I get here that fast?’ ”

He began floating “and it seemed quite normal.”

“You could control yourself quite easily as long as you were touching or holding onto something,” he said.

He said it was completely silent and still, and “the black of space is blacker than any black I’ve ever seen.”

“Part of that is there's so much light reflecting off the Earth that when you see the blackness of space you don't see any stars because of all the sunlight reflecting off the Earth,” he said.

He focused on staring out the window and taking it all in so he would remember.

He said seeing the line of the atmosphere surrounding Earth was much more colorful than anything he’s ever seen.

“The atmosphere comes across as a thin blue line in photos but what we actually see in space is that that blue line but it fades to a white and then almost an orange and a pink, and it's two to three to four times thicker than just the blue line part that you see in photographs and movies,” he said. “But what it makes you realize is that everything that's alive on this planet is within that thin blue line.”

He said he was “blown away” by the beauty.

When he noticed he had room he did a midair somersault. He ran out of momentum two-thirds of the way around and had to reach out to his seat and push himself to complete it.

“I was kind of surprised,” he said.


The VSS Unity soars away from VMS Eve. (Photo provided by Virgin Galactic)


Seconds later the pilot told the passengers to get back in their seats. The spacecraft then began to fall back into the atmosphere, picking up Gs along the way.

“It actually got kind of violent in terms of shaking,” he said.

Vaughn said he wasn’t nervous because he had confidence in the crew lead by commander “CJ”  Sturkcow, who piloted four flights to the International Space Station with NASA before joining Virgin Galactic, and pilot Nicola “Stick” Pecile.

“I had all the confidence in the world in them and the operations team,”

Vaughn said. “You just ride it out.”

The spacecraft fell quickly from 290,000 feet (54.9 miles) to 90,000 feet (17 miles). Vaughn said at that altitude he could clearly see the Earth’s curvature.

While in space, the pilots “feathered” Unity’s wings to about 60 degrees to increase atmospheric drag and slow the descent. At an altitude of about 53,000 feet, they then locked the wings back into their normal position and the aircraft became a glider, landing back at Spacecraft America at 10:56 a.m.

Vaughn said he turned around to a crewmate and said: “Wow, that was really intense!”

He said he didn’t mean just from a G-force standpoint, but also an experiential standpoint.

“Just realizing where you had just been and how fast it happened,” he said. “It’s really a quick dream.”

He was greeted by his wife, Fallon, and 40 family members and friends. Among them were his son, Robert Vaughn Jr. ’06, daughter, Browning Day ’08, and his grandson, Robert Vaughn III.


Robie Vaughn back on Earth after his trip into space. (Photo provided by Virgin Galactic)


Vaughn said the 18-year wait after putting his deposit down was worth it. Of the original 100 people who put deposits down, only 48 were left when they held a lottery in 2019 to decide the order. Vaughn was picked No. 8.

Vaughn became fascinated by space travel when reading about the space program in his grandmother’s National Geographics and watching on TV as the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo rockets launched.

“We were running around our neighborhood with our friends and building rockets and firing them off,” he said.

He asked his father, Jack, who attended Culver for a year, to take him to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of Apollo 11 carrying Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon. They watched from the Vertical Assembly Building. 

“I thought it was like watching Columbus sail from Portugal to discover the new world,” Vaughn said. “The sound waves were popping us in the face from three miles away.”

Vaughn also watched Apollo 15 launch two years later in July 1971, five weeks before he enrolled at Culver Military Academy, where he learned to fly.

Vaughn interviewed to attend the Air Force Academy but decided to attend The University of Texas at Austin business school instead because his father was an entrepreneur. It worked out because he had to help the family business when his father died his senior year of college.

But he never gave up the boyhood dream of making it to space. He took aerospace engineering and astronomy classes in college as electives. He has served on The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Astronomy and McDonald Observatory board of visitors since 1984.

He and his wife, Fallon, have helped fund two telescopes, the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in West Texas and the Giant Magellan Telescope being built in the mountains of Chile. He also collects American flags that flew on Apollo flights.


Robie Vaughn and fellow crew members head toward the VSS Unity. (Photo provided by Virgin Galactic)


Vaughn said he’s the 679th person to go into space and the 2,189th person to summit Mount Everest. Vaughn, who also has climbed the highest mountains on the six other continents, quoted NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski when asked to compare the two feats: “I got to tell you, climbing Mount Everest was a whole lot harder.”

He said the flight to space was less than an hour and he was a passenger. He was gone from Dallas for 10 weeks climbing Mount Everest and for six of those weeks he was at or above base camp at 18,000 feet.

“That’s a really long time to be cold,” he said.

He said the one thing the two feats have in common is a need for a long-term goal and a passion to do it.

“If I didn’t hold on to my dreams and my passions about space I never would have gotten there,” he said.

Vaughn said he learned discipline, perseverance, organizational skills, planning and tenacity at Culver, skills that have served him well. He had some advice for Culver students: “Never give up your dreams.”

“You never know what’s going to come your way,” he said. “If you don’t give up on things that you want and are passionate about, they’ll actually come find you.”


Robie Vaughn presented the Culver flag he brought to space to school officials at the board of trustees meeting.  (Photo provided by Scott Johnson)

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