Forbes - Innovation

Virgin Galactic’s Historic Flight Wasn’t Just Space Tourism

On Sunday, July 11th, Sir Richard Branson’s spaceline, Virgin Galactic, made history when it’s founder beyond the edge of space. As part of a wonderfully nominal flight, Branson and three other mission specialists were lifted to 46,000 feet by the VMS Eve mothership and then rocketed to space in the VSS Unity. Most of the attention — and fanfare — focused on the flight’s commercial aspect: Branson flew to ‘evaluate the private astronaut experience,’ according to the company’s flight announcement earlier this month.

However despite some grumblings about billionaires and their billion-dollar space hobbies on social media, the Unity 22 mission was not solely focused on proving the commercial readiness of Virgin Galactic nor an excuse to finally send Branson to space after nearly two decades in business.

One of the four mission specialists, now astronauts, was onboard with the primary focus of conducting scientific research. Sirisha Bandla serves as Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic and her goal was to evaluate the ability to conduct human-tended research aboard Virgin Galactic flights.

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The experiment Bandla tended was supported by NASA and conducted on behalf of a research team at the University of Florida. Co-investigators Dr. Robert Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul we’re in attendance for the mission and day’s festivities at Spaceport America.

Specifically, the research is studying plant gene expression at different stages of flight: 1 g during ascent, just before microgravity, and at the conclusion of microgravity. The research is similar to other past studies supported by NASA on other suborbital flights; this aimed to be the first human-tended (rather than passive) research as part of the Flight Opportunities program. (For those interested, the research has its own social media: @UF_Space_Plants)

Equally important was studying the ability to conduct the research, which was Bandla’s second objective.

“My role was to demonstrate the capability,” Bandla shared after landing. “I actuated all three of the Kennedy fixation tubes that I went up to space to do.” From the research project’s perspective, the mission was a success and Drs. Ferl and Paul will have specimens and data to study.

When asked about what she will suggest for improvements to the researcher experience aboard future Virgin Galactic flights — the meta objective for having a spot aboard the flight — Bandla shared that timing (of experiment protocols) is key: “I think it’s really important to actually look out the window, and I’d work with [future] researchers to ensure that they can conduct everything they need to do an also enjoy the experience.”

“That was what got me at the end, because I looked out the window and I was mesmerized, and then I was like ‘oh, shoot, science!’,” Bandla said with a smile. Given how much her fellow passengers raves about the views, it’s easy to see how that might be distracting.

Bandla also noted that she’ll be providing recommendations on how to stabilize during microgravity as free-floating may make it difficult to conduct certain tasks.

While Virgin Galactic hasn’t announced the specific order or crews for remaining test flights before the company shifts its focus more fully toward commercial flights for paying customers, Bandla will undoubtedly be sharing her insights with friend and fellow researcher Kellie Gerardi, who was part of the launch livestream and is a planned future Virgin Galactic astronaut.

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