February 26, 2024

Virgin Galactic to perform suborbital research flight in November

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic will conclude its schedule of suborbital spaceflights this year with a mission in early November whose crew will include a longtime advocate of suborbital research.

The company announced Oct. 18 that the next flight of its VSS Unity suborbital spaceplane, Galactic 05, is scheduled for a window that opens Nov. 2 from Spaceport America in New Mexico. It will be the fifth commercial flight for the company and the sixth flight of Unity this year, all since late May.

Galactic 05, like the Galactic 01 mission in June, is described as a research flight by the company. It will carry among its crew two researchers, Alan Stern and Kellie Gerardi. A third customer is described by the company only as a Franco-Italian private astronaut.

Stern, an associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute’s (SwRI) space science division, will evaluate a harness used for collecting biomedical data as well as test a mockup of an astronomical camera planned for a future suborbital flight. Gerardi, representing the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), a research and educational organization, will test a biomonitoring device and collect other biomedical data while also conducting a fluid dynamics experiment.

Stern has been a leading advocate for using commercial suborbital vehicles like Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo to conduct research more rapidly and less expensively than alternative platforms, giving scientists access to several minutes of microgravity and other aspects of the space environment. That interest has included running a series of conferences since 2010 devoted to commercial suborbital research.

Stern was the first scientist selected by NASA in 2020 for an award through the agency’s Flight Opportunities program that would allow him to go on a commercial suborbital vehicle to conduct research. This flight, though, is funded by SwRI and will serve as training for that future NASA-funded mission.

“What sets this flight apart from others, and which likely represents a new kind of space activity, is that more than anything else I will be training — in space — for future space experiments I will be performing with NASA funding,” Stern said in a statement. “Virgin’s suborbital costs are low enough to open up space training actually in space as a viable opportunity, and that is a game changer.”

IIAS signed an agreement with Virgin Galactic in 2021 to fly Gerardi, who has worked with IIAS for several years. “This mission represents the beginning of a new era of access to space for the research community, and the culmination of a personal lifelong dream,” she said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to paving the way for our many talented researchers who will follow, using space as a laboratory to benefit humanity.”

The company has highlighted suborbital research as an alternative application for its vehicles versus space tourism, and one that is potentially more lucrative on a per-seat basis. “We’re thrilled to offer a wide breadth of high-quality and reliable access to space-based research,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a company statement. “Insights from this flight will be used to enhance and refine the research capabilities of our future Delta fleet.”

The mission will be commanded by Mike Masucci with Kelly Latimer as pilot and Colin Bennett as the in-flight astronaut instructor. The company said that Galactic 05 will be the last to carry an astronaut instructor, with Galactic 06 and subsequent flights carrying four private astronaut customers. Colgalzier said in an earnings call in August that the company would likely replace the astronaut instructor with a fourth customer “as we move into 2024.”

While Galactic 05 continues a roughly monthly cadence of Virgin Galactic suborbital missions dating back to late May, it will also be the last of the year. The company said Galactic 06 will take place in January to give the company time for “routine, planned annual vehicle inspections.”

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