Virgin Galactic on Thursday announced a new contract for human research aboard its suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity. The company said Kellie Gerardi, a researcher and science communicator, will conduct two experiments on an upcoming flight that could take place as early as 2022.
The announcement is remarkable because it suggests that there may be a viable business for Virgin in this type of microgravity research and because the news provides further evidence that “ordinary” people could one day go to outer space. as more and more businesses start to fly 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 of Astronautical Sciences to obtain research contracts with the National Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Space Agency.
During her flight, she will wear an “Astroskin” which will monitor her vital signs. With about three to four minutes of weightlessness to work on, Gerardi will also conduct a floating fluid setup experiment.
Virgin Galactic did not say how much that seat cost – likely one of four on a future dedicated research mission. However, Gerardi said in an interview that the flight was affordable. “There are so many people on Twitter who say they are future astronauts, and I think that proves that it can be true,” she said. “Now that aspiration actually has this possibility to come true.”
Gerardi said she has full confidence in Virgin Galactic to prepare her VSS Unity spacecraft for commercial service and in the safety of the company’s launch system, which uses a carrier aircraft and sleek spacecraft to rocket at more than 80 km.
Virgin Galactic recently launched its first successful test flight from New Mexico and intends to complete its test campaign this calendar year, said Sirisha Bandla, the company’s vice president of government affairs.
The next step for Virgin Galactic is a test flight with employees in the passenger cabin. This test will be followed by a flight carrying company founder Sir Richard Branson. Finally, the company will launch a flight for researchers and astronauts-in-training of the Italian Air Force. “We will be completing our test flight program this year and we will be making scheduling decisions once this program is completed,” Bandla said.
Among those future missions are the dedicated research flight that Gerardi will be a part of, a NASA-funded science mission that will include planetologist Alan Stern, and flights for around 600 people who have already purchased tickets to become private astronauts. One big question that Virgin Galactic faces is how often it will fly VSS Unity and any other spacecraft it builds. So far, Virgin’s theft rate has been low, but it certainly looks like there is a high demand for the company’s services.