Virgin Galactic Flies Science Experiments to the Edge of Space

On November 2, Virgin Galactic flew Unity 2 on the Galactic 05 mission. It carried two scientists, a private tourist, and an astronaut trainer on a sub-orbital trip flown by Pilots Mike Massuci and Kelly Latimer. It was the company’s sixth successful flight in six months and the last for 2023.

The scientists aboard were Dr. Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SWRI), joined by Kellie Gerardi, who was sponsored by the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) in Canada. Stern is also the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and is vice president at SWRI. He’s a long-time planetary scientist who has served on a number of missions. Stern has conducted suborbital research aboard NASA sounding rockets. He is the former board chair of the Commercial Space Flight Federation and a current member of the National Science Board.

Kelli Gerardi is active in aerospace, and bioastronautics and served as a payload specialist for this mission. She leads mission operations for Palantir Technologies, serves on the Defense Council for Truman National Security Project, and served on the board of directors for The Explorers Club. In addition, she is a prolific science communicator with several books and a Website to her credit. She also maintains an active social media presence.

During its almost four minutes in microgravity at apogee at 87.2 kilometers (54.2 miles) above Earth, the science team performed a series of biomedical experiments aimed at tracking human performance in space. Also included was a microgravity fluids experiment and a human-tended practice session with a mockup of a camera that will fly on future space missions.

Carrying Science to Apogee

During his brief time in microgravity, Stern used the Accutracker II heart and pulse monitor to collect physiological data on himself. “This particular version flew on the Shuttle many times,” he said. Stern and his co-investigator, Dr. Dan Durda have also flown with the harness on high-performance F-104 flights and parabolic missions aboard the so-called “Vomit Comet” aircraft. Stern described the flight on Galactic 05 as a risk-reduction mission to test the technology. “For me, this was mostly a training flight,” he said, noting that NASA will sign a contract with Virgin after 13 successful test flights like this one.

The Accutracker II harness worn by Alan Stern aboard Virgin Galactic's 05 expedition. Courtesy  Dan Durda/SWRI.
The Accutracker II harness worn by Alan Stern aboard Virgin Galactic’s 05 expedition. Courtesy Dan Durda/SWRI.

Their second experiment was a practice run learning to use a handheld Xybion wide-field visible and ultraviolet astronomical imager. “What we carried today was a mockup of the camera we’ll carry on the next flight,” he said. “It’s a training and learning experience, but this is part of the new era that it’s affordable enough that you can do that. I’m going to recommend to my colleagues in the funding agencies that they give these training flights to people.

Practicing for Future Flights

Essentially, the team has to show NASA that they can manipulate the camera in space efficiently. Stern’s aim was to learn to maneuver the camera in space. He had to stabilize it in microgravity and get the timing sequences down for a successful run with the real thing. “We now, as a result of Galactic 05 have videos of it in flight that tell us how long it took to do all the steps,” he said.

Other aspects of using the camera in space revolve around the transmissive nature of Unity’s windows on Unity. “What you don’t know is how glints affect the camera, how micro-abrasions and scratches on the windows produce flaws, what kind of exhaust film gets on them,” he said. ” “The only way to find that out is to get data through the windows in flight, to get data from three different windows, three geometries, and then compare it to Shuttle data that we have.”

Alan Stern practicing with a mockup of an astronomical camera his team hopes to fly aboard Virgin Galactic. Courtesy Virgin Galactic.

More Biomedical Studies at Apogee

Kellie Gerardi’s experiments collected biomedical and fluid behavior data during the Unity 2 flight. Her sponsor developed all three through a series of reduced gravity flights prior to the mission. The first examined questions about how confined fluids behave in low-gravity environments. That has implications for everything from spacecraft life support systems to administering medications in space through special syringes.

In her second experiment, Gerardi gathered biometric data from the Astroskin biomonitoring device built into a “smart shirt”. It provided ECG data as well as heart rate, breathing rate, and air volume. It also measured skin temperature during flight. Unity 2’s flight was the first time it collected data through all phases of a mission. Interestingly, hospitals, first responders, and others here on Earth also use this Astroskin.

Kellie Gerardi tested a biomedical Astroskin, a blood glucose monitor, and monitored a fluids experiment during Virgin Galactic's 05 expedition. She also made time to simply gaze at the view out the portholes during flight. Courtesy Virgin Galactic.
Kellie Gerardi tested a biomedical Astroskin suit, a blood glucose monitor, and tended a fluids experiment. She also made time to simply gaze at the view out the portholes during flight. Courtesy Virgin Galactic.

The third experiment measured blood glucose changes during flight. Changes in blood sugar are a well-known aspect of long-duration flight aboard the Shuttle and International Space Station. This is because prolonged periods of weightlessness induced a sort of “pre-diabetes” condition in astronauts. This sort of insulin resistance affects the way the muscles and liver absorb glucose and regulate blood sugar levels. The aim of Gerardi’s experiment was to see if that was affected during launch, apogee, and return to Earth.

Science at Suborbital Heights

After landing, both scientists talked about their experiences and the experiments they conducted. For Stern and SWRI, the mission was critical and went beyond just the two experiments he conducted. “When we set the objectives for this flight for Southwest Research, we had 8 objectives. Some were what we call minimum mission success and then accomplishing what we call slow mission success,” he said. “We got everything we wanted. All eight objectives were fully accomplished.”

Just after landing, Kellie Gerardi (left), Alan Stern (center), and space tourist Kettie Maisonrouge (right), talked about their experience during the Virgin Galactic flight. Image credit: Carolyn Collins Petersen
Just after landing, Kellie Gerardi (left), Alan Stern (center), and space tourist Kettie Maisonrouge (right), talked about their experience during the Virgin Galactic flight. Image credit: Carolyn Collins Petersen

For Gerardi, her Institute’s tests were critical confirmation of prior work. “The Astroskin unit I was wearing is the identical unit that is flown currently on the International Space Station,” said Gerardi. She noted that there was a significant difference between its use there and on her Virgin Galactic flight. “I was able to wear it during the launch, reentry, and landing portions of the flight. Normally astronauts put it on once they’re already in a microgravity environment,” she said. “So, it’s measuring pretty much all of the things you would expect. It’s like free vector cardiography (VCG is a method of getting 2D images of cardiac electrical activity). It’s got pulse oximetry and a number of different sensor data.”

Her third experiment focused on continuous blood glucose monitoring during flight. This test is in response to evidence that long-duration space missions produce insulin resistance in astronauts. The data from the monitor she wore adds new data to studies of this condition in space flyers. It should help answer questions about how quickly that resistance resolves after flight.

Gerardi was particularly excited about the fluids payload, and its operation in microgravity. “One of the experiments we flew had Shuttle heritage. It was bolted down on the Shuttle and the G jitter really disrupted the data,” she said. The Unity 2 flight was a good chance to see how the fluids in the experiment would behave. “What we saw was extraordinary. We exceeded anything that we have seen in parabolic flight here on Earth…we were collecting the highest-quality data and watching some really novel behavior from the fluid cell and being able to react to that in real-time.”

Why Do Suborbital Science?

A question that keeps coming up is, “Why do suborbital flights? Why not just go to the International Space Station?” It’s not like suborbital science is new. Scientists have been doing suborbital science for years—using sounding rockets and high-altitude balloons. Those continue today. So, going to suborbital heights is not a new idea. Going to orbit, on the other hand, adds several challenges. One is accessibility. The ISS is a limited commodity. To get an experiment on it takes years of planning and waiting for a launch window. Getting onto a suborbital flight still has some lead time, but as more of these missions happen, the accessibility increases.

A NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket soars skyward into an aurora over Alaska during the launch on 5:13 a.m. EST, Feb. 22, 2017. Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach

Suborbital Is Economical

Another challenge is cost. Cost figures vary across launch platforms, but, for example, a seat on Axiom can cost in the range of $70 million. Going up on suborbital flights to microgravity to do short-term experiments (or even a tourist ride) is much more accessible and much less expensive, Stern pointed out. “The new commercial vehicles, such as the Virgin rocket ship that we just flew on, fly at ten times lower costs and they fly presently about ten times more often, and soon hundreds of times, and then soon many hundreds of times more frequently,” he said. “So, it’s opening up access in a way that we never could afford to do, or had the capacity to do all the way back to the 1950s, when rocket-borne research was really getting underway.”

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity conducted her second powered test flight on Tuesday, May 29th. With six flights under their belts, the VG crews are planning for more in 2024. Credit: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity conducted her second powered test flight on Tuesday, May 29th. With six flights under their belts, the VG crews are planning for more in 2024. Credit: Virgin Galactic

At the current time a tourist seat on Virgin Galactic’s Unity 2 cost around half a million dollars. (Those prices may well rise to ~$1 million, according to recent announcements from the company.) Science teams can expect to pay around $650,000 for a seat and equipment to get four minutes of microgravity in suborbital space. By comparison, someone flying a hyperbolic “vomit comet” type flight pays around $10,000 for an experience in a lunar-gravity (1/6 G) environment. An uncrewed suborbital rocket costs around $3 to $5 million (at the low end).

Training Scientists in Suborbital Space

Suborbital flight puts scientists back in control of experiments to be done in space. “You know, volcanologists go to volcanoes, astronomers go to observatories, oceanographers go into the ocean space, but space scientists have been going to control rooms,” Stern said. “And that’s not the best way to do your experiment because automating things is expensive and it’s error-prone, with lots of failure modes.” Gerardi agreed and pointed out that the research she did onboard allowed her to do things in microgravity that couldn’t be done on the ground.

Putting people into space, even for short periods of time in microgravity, is changing the face of space flight, according to both Unity 2 astronauts. “It’s going to be really transformative all the way across the 21st century and probably forever,” said Stern, also pointing out that his flight put Southwest Research Institute (where he is a vice-president), in a very competitive place for continuing human spaceflight for suborbital science. For IIAS, it’s a chance to enhance its robust educational programs that train future astronauts and explorers. “It’s a new era of access to space,” she emphasized, “for scientists and for civilians.”

The Galactic 05 expedition was the last Unity flight of the year. The next Unity 2 mission is planned for January 2024 and the company will then begin phasing out those flights by mid-year. The company is already working on the Delta suborbital craft to replace it and plans to open a new spacecraft plant in Phoenix next year. Virgin has announced layoffs as part of a process of streamlining the non-Delta workforce. The first Delta craft may launch as soon as 2026, and the company expects to serve both tourist and science research passengers.

For More Information

International Institute for Astronautical Sciences
Kellie Gerardi
My Suborbital Life (Part 9 of a blog series)
Southwest Research Institute
Virgin Galactic

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