November 2, 2023 — Dr. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute’s Space Sector, today flew aboard the Virgin Galactic commercial spaceship Unity on a suborbital space mission. During the roughly 60-minute mission, first mated to its carrier aircraft VMS Eve, and then horizontally launched into space, Stern tested equipment and trained for a future suborbital flight where he will conduct two NASA experiments in space.
“Dr. Stern’s flight is a first for SwRI scientists,” said SwRI President and CEO Adam Hamilton, P.E. “This is an important step in preparing additional SwRI scientists and engineers for space-based research in the future.”
VSS Unity took off from New Mexico’s Spaceport America near Las Cruces, at 9:00 a.m. MT and landed at 9:59 a.m. Stern traveled 54.2 miles above the Earth, roughly 10 times higher than the cruising altitude of most commercial airliners, reaching a top speed approaching Mach 3.
During the flight, Stern tested equipment monitoring his vital signs in preparation for a NASA-funded experiment he will perform in space aboard a second suborbital flight. He also conducted training and risk-reduction activities in preparation for his NASA flight to evaluate the spacecraft’s suitability for making astronomy observations in space. For that experiment, Stern will use the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System (SWUIS), an innovative, wide-field, visible and ultraviolet imager, which has flown on two Space Shuttle missions. Stern led the development of SWUIS at SwRI as its principal investigator.
Southwest Research Institute’s internal research and development program funded Stern’s journey into space. The program supports research initiatives that ultimately benefit clients.
“This first human spaceflight by a SwRI staff member was a thrilling and truly unforgettable experience, and I’m already excited about my next trip for NASA,” Stern said. “What I find even more exciting is the idea that this is the beginning of a new era for SwRI space scientists, when we can conduct research in space ourselves. I believe this is the beginning of something pivotal.”
To train for his first trip to space, Stern flew on numerous fighter aircraft and rode in a human centrifuge to get a taste of the high speeds and high acceleration forces he experienced on VSS Unity. He also trained in microgravity on over 20 parabolic flights and underwent intensive training at Spaceport America before his flight.