Dr. Alan Stern, planetary scientist and associate vice president of Southwest Research Institute’s (SRI) Space Science and Engineering Division, will fly aboard Virgin Galactic’s “SpaceShipTwo” on a planned suborbital mission from Spaceport America, north of Las Cruces.
“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said.
He called the development a “potential sea change” in NASA-funded space research, opening the door to extensive experimentation in space by researchers. The NASA selection builds on SRI’s history of work and internal research funding to capitalize on the new generation of commercial suborbital vehicles like SpaceShipTwo.
The partnership is the beginning of a new and bigger opportunity for the role of suborbital spaceflight in space-based research, said Virgin Galactic Chief Executive Officer Michael Colglazier.
‘’I’m excited to see NASA has embraced the ‘human-tended’ market through its successful NASA Flight Opportunities Program,” he said. “We have strong evidence of the global demand for suborbital research flight, reflected in our recently signed contract with the Italian Air Force.”
Colglazier said this will be Stern’s first time flying to space. Human-tended research onboard SpaceShipTwo enables scientists to engage actively with their experiments, responding to developments in real time.
One SRI experiment on the flight will involve Stern operating a former space shuttle and NASA F-18 low-light-level camera to determine how well space astronomical observations can be conducted. In addition, Stern will be fitted with instrumentation that continuously monitors his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing as a biomedical experiment. The results of both experiments will be published.