October 18, 2023 — On November 2, Dr. Alan Stern, planetary scientist and associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science Division, will fly aboard the Virgin Galactic commercial spaceship VSS Unity on a suborbital space mission to train for a future NASA-funded Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in which he will perform two NASA experiments in space.
“When I was a kid, human spaceflight was only available to NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. Now that’s changing, and SwRI is pioneering a new era of space research being conducted in space, by space scientists,” Stern said. “This first space flight for myself and for SwRI is just the beginning: it is the first flight in what I hope will be a long series for us.”
Stern will travel over 50 miles above the Earth into space, 10 times higher than the cruising altitude of most commercial airliners, reaching a top speed of Mach 3.
“It’s very exciting news that Dr. Stern, after a lifetime of studying the cosmos, will have the chance to travel into space himself and see the curvature of the Earth just outside a window,” said Dr. James L. Burch, Senior Vice President of SwRI’s Space Sector. “It’s an important and inspiring step forward for space scientists everywhere, and for SwRI as well.”
Stern’s upcoming first journey to space in November is funded by Southwest Research Institute’s internal research and development program which supports fundamental research initiatives that ultimately benefit clients.
“This suborbital flight and scientific study are part of a Southwest Research Institute internally funded research program that began over a dozen years ago,” said SwRI Executive Vice President and COO Walt Downing. “We are excited to see the plans for this mission come to fruition at long last!”
During the flight, Stern will test equipment monitoring his vital signs in preparation for a NASA-funded experiment he will perform in space aboard a second suborbital flight. He will also conduct training and risk reduction activities in preparation for his NASA flight that will evaluate how well-suited the spacecraft is 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.
“This is an important risk-reduction opportunity for Alan's upcoming NASA-funded research flight. We can train using all manner of simulators or analog flight environments and, while those certainly do help us prepare for the real thing, there's nothing like flying an actual flight to really understand the nuances of the work environment and expose any potential shortcomings in our experiment plan,” said SwRI Principal Scientist and Co-Investigator Dr. Dan Durda. “A suborbital flight presents a very fast-paced timeline and some very real distractions, including an incredible view, not present in our other training sessions. It's good to retire those risks before it really counts for the NASA-funded suborbital spaceflight.”
In preparation for his first trip to space, Stern has flown on numerous fighter aircraft and ridden a human centrifuge to get a taste of the high speeds and high acceleration forces he will experience. He has also flown on over 20 parabolic flights to train in microgravity.
“In almost every other scientific field, the scientists go and take data in the experimental environment,” Stern said. “For example, volcanologists go and study volcanoes up close, oceanographers go to sea, but space scientists have long been only able to make their observations from here on Earth, operating equipment by remote control or through the surrogate work of NASA astronauts. Since the 1960s, going to space was, for the most part, just for astronauts, and for years the technology just wasn’t ready to allow space scientists to go with their instruments and operate them in space. This first flight aboard Virgin Galactic is one step in normalizing the idea of space scientists going to space. In 10 to 20 years, research by scientists in space should be a regular occurrence, and I’m really excited to be a part of this historic and impactful pivot.”
Stern is already training for the flight in SwRI facilities and will also undergo about a week of intensive training, in addition to a spacesuit fitting, at Spaceport America, just outside Las Cruces, New Mexico, before taking off on November 2.