Planetary scientist Dr Alan Stern has been selected by NASA to be among the first group of researchers to conduct science experiments while flying aboard Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft.
Virgin Galactic’s vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is designed to take customers high above Earth to experience weightlessness.
Stern, Associate Vice President of Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division in San Antonio, Texas, will oversee two different experiments while on board the flight, each meant to take advantage of the brief stay in the space environment, on a yet unscheduled suborbital mission from the Spaceport America launch site in New Mexico.
THE STORY IS OUT!
I’ve been selected to be the first ever researcher to fly on a NASA-funded commercial suborbital space mission! See here: https://t.co/jNyZdhCgIJ…
Go NASA! Go Science! #DreamDoComeTrue #PersistencePays pic.twitter.com/XcEXpZyHJP
— Alan Stern (@AlanStern) October 14, 2020
“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a media release. He called the development a “potential sea change” in NASA-funded space research, opening the door to much more extensive experimentation in space by researchers.
In January, NASA announced that it would start accepting proposals from scientists outside the space agency who were interested in flying, along with their work, on commercial rockets that launch to the edge of space and back. Only two options for these types of flights are in the works at the moment: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, which has flown experiments but not people yet. In a call for proposals put out in March, NASA offered scientists between US$450,000 or US$650,000 to fund their research and trip, depending on their proposal.
One of the experiments will involve Stern operating a former space shuttle and NASA F-18 low light level camera to determine how well space astronomical observations can be conducted. In addition, Stern will be fitted with instrumentation that continuously monitors human vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing as a biomedical experiment. The results of both experiments will be published.
“Going to work in space myself for the first time after having spent so many years sending machines there to do the research for me is going to be a major career highlight, and something I am honoured to be selected for,” said Stern, who has previously been involved in 29 space mission science teams but has not flown in space. “But I hope this is just the first of a steady stream of flights by Southwest Research Institute researchers doing work in space in the years and decades ahead.
“My job is to deploy that experiment and take it to three different windows or more during the zero-gravity portion of flight, before I have to go back and buckle up for entry.”
To get to space, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is carried to an altitude of around 35,000 feet, underneath the wing of a giant dual-fuselage carrier aircraft. Once at the right altitude, the spaceplane is released and ignites its main engine. The vehicle then climbs up to a height of roughly 88km (55 miles), reaching a region of the atmosphere that many consider to be the beginning of space. The vehicle then shifts its wings and re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, eventually gliding to a stop on a runway.
“We are proud to be working with NASA and the Southwest Research Institute to fly Dr Alan Stern on our SpaceShipTwo vehicle from Spaceport America,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. “It will be Alan’s first time flying to space and we are excited to be involved in such an important milestone. Human-tended research onboard SpaceShipTwo enables scientists to engage actively with their experiments, responding to developments in real time, which is a vital step towards expanding our understanding of space science. We believe there is significant value in conducting scientific experiments on suborbital flights and we look forward to expanding our capabilities in partnership with NASA’s Flight Opportunities Tech Flights program.”
Virgin Galactic’s last powered test flight occurred in February last year. Subsequently Virgin Galactic has moved from its test facilities in Mojave, California, to the company’s permanent home at a spaceport in the New Mexico desert. Today, Virgin Galactic said it is getting ready for its first flight to space from New Mexico, which will “occur later this fall”.