Virgin Galactic announced a new contract Thursday for human-tended research aboard its suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity. The company said that Kellie Gerardi, a researcher and science communicator, would conduct two experiments during an upcoming flight that could happen as early as 2022.
The announcement is notable because it suggests there may be a viable business for Virgin in this kind of microgravity research and because the news provides further evidence that “regular” people may one day be able to go into space as more companies start flying there.
Gerardi has been involved in the commercial space industry, including working for the Commercial Space Federation, for about a decade. She obtained this flight by partnering with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences to secure research contracts with the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Space Agency.
During her flight, she will wear an “Astroskin” that will monitor her vital signs. With about three to four minutes of weightlessness to work with, Gerardi will also conduct a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.
Virgin Orbit did not say how much this seat—likely one of four on a future dedicated research mission—cost. However, Gerardi said in an interview that the flight was within the realm of affordability. “There are so many people on Twitter who say they are future astronauts, and I think this proves that that can be true,” she said. “Now, that aspiration actually has this avenue to become true.”
Gerardi said she had full confidence in Virgin Galactic getting its VSS Unity spacecraft ready for commercial service and in the safety of the company’s launch system, which uses a carrier aircraft and sleek spacecraft to rocket above 80 km.
Virgin Galactic recently launched its first successful test flight from New Mexico, and it intends to complete its test campaign this calendar year, said Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs for the company.
Next up for Virgin Galactic is a test flight with employees in the passenger cabin. This test will be followed by a flight carrying the company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson. Finally, the company will launch a flight for researchers and astronauts-in-training in the Italian Air Force. “We’re going to finish our test flight program this year, and we’ll make scheduling decisions after this program has been completed,” Bandla said.
Among those future missions are the dedicated research flight Gerardi will be a part of, a NASA-funded science mission that will include planetary scientist Alan Stern, and flights for about 600 people who have already bought tickets to become private astronauts. One big question facing Virgin Galactic is how often it will fly VSS Unity and any additional spacecraft it is building. So far, Virgin’s flight rate has been low, but it certainly seems like there is ample demand for the company’s services.