Virgin Galactic has announced the flight window and roster for its next space tourism trip. The flight named Galactic 05 is (confusingly) the company’s sixth this year and tenth overall. It could take place as early as 2 November 2023, if conditions are right.
Following the “hybrid” pattern of its five previous missions, the VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital rocket-powered resusable space plane, will be carried by the so-called “mothership” VMS Eve, to a “release altitude” of around 15,240 metres (50,000 feet) before its own rocket engine ignites, taking the craft further towards the “Kármán line” – a notional frontier between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
Take-off and landing will be at Virgin Galactic’s hub of commercial operations, Spaceport America in New Mexico, with a flight duration of up to an hour and 15 minutes.
Flying space laboratory
Travelling at three times the speed of sound and reaching an eventual apogee of 87 kilometres (54 miles), those onboard what will effectively be a flying science lab will include two researchers. One of them will be veteran NASA scientist Alan Stern, whose New Horizons investigation craft sent back to Earth paradigm-shattering images and data from Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. He will be sponsored by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) of which he is Associate Vice President.
Joining Stern will be Kellie Gerardi, an International Institute for Astronautical Sciences-sponsored researcher, science communicator and author of “Not Necessarily Rocket Science: A Beginner’s Guide to Life in the Space Age” (Mango Media, 2020).
Gerardi hailed the opportunity private space flights represent for science researchers “to achieve all of their research goals and their personal goals of becoming astronauts”, telling Space.com, “This is, obviously. a dream come true for me.”
A new kind of space activity
In collaboration with “academic and government partners,” the duo will undertake tests related to new technology and human health. Stern will use a biomedical harness “to collect physiological data related to human spaceflight and conduct practice activities for an astronomical experiment”, according to Virgin Galactic. Gerardi meanwhile will “fly three payloads, two of which will evaluate novel healthcare technologies in microgravity conditions.”
Stern echoed Gerardi’s sentiment and thoughts. “After years of sending machines to conduct research on my behalf, I’m thrilled to be making this maiden spaceflight,” he said. “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. 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.”
An anonymous private astronaut of Franco-Italian nationality will also be on the flight.