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First scientist slated to fly to space on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital tourist rocket

Head of NASA’s Pluto mission, Alan Stern, is the rider

Image: Virgin Galactic

Planetary scientist Alan Stern will become one of the first researchers to fly to space on board a future flight of Virgin Galactic’s tourist spaceplane. Stern will oversee two different experiments while on board the flight, each meant to take advantage of the brief stay in the space environment.

Virgin Galactic’s vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, is designed to take customers high above Earth to get a taste of weightlessness. The company has flown both people and research experiments to space before on the spaceplane. But the company has yet to fly any actual researchers on the vehicle. All of the research payloads that have flown on SpaceShipTwo so far have been automated. Most of this research is funded and arranged through NASA, which wouldn’t allow researchers to fly along with their experiments.

But in January, NASA announced that it would start accepting proposals from scientists outside the 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 no people yet. In a call for proposals put out in March, NASA offered scientists between $450,000 or $650,000 to fund their research and trip, depending on what they proposed.

Stern, the associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute’s (SwRI) space science and engineering division, made it clear that he was eager to take advantage of the opportunity back in March. “It’s our job to respond to that call for proposals and flood them with good ideas to show them how much interest there is, how much impact this can have,” he said at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado, according to Space News. Also well-known as the principal investigator of NASA’s mission to Pluto, Stern has been a staunch advocate for researchers being able to fly with their experiments on suborbital flights.

Planetary scientist Alan Stern.
Photo: SwRI

“It was it was simultaneously hugely gratifying and hugely humbling,” Stern tells The Verge of finding out his proposal had been accepted. “And when I found out yesterday that this was the only proposal they accepted, it meant even more, and the responsibility is even more to do a good job.”

Stern will be working with two experiments while he’s on the Virgin Galactic flight. One will entail working with a low-light camera, once used on the Space Shuttle, to see how well scientists can observe stars and other objects in space out the windows of SpaceShipTwo. The different windows may have different lighting conditions in relation to the Sun. “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,” says Stern. He’ll also be wearing various sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before getting on the spaceplane until after landing.

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 55 miles, reaching a region of the atmosphere that many consider to be the beginning of space. The vehicle then shifts its wings and reenters Earth’s atmosphere, eventually gliding to a stop on a runway.

Stern’s flight on SpaceShipTwo has yet to be scheduled, but he says he’ll spend time training in the run-up to the flight. “We’re going to plan every moment of it and what to do in contingencies,” Stern says. “And then train. A lot of the training won’t be with Virgin. It’ll be on Zero G aircraft, high performance jets — the things that I’ve already done but now it’s just run up to flight.”

In the meantime, it’s been a while since Virgin Galactic has actually reached space. The company’s last powered test flight occurred in February 2019. Since then, 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.”

When Virgin Galactic does eventually launch again, Stern says he’ll be watching closely. “I’ll probably drive down to New Mexico, which is a neighboring state [of Colorado], and go see that flight,” he says.

Update October 14th, 4:20PM ET: This article was updated to include an interview with Alan Stern.