Virgin Galactic’s signed contract with the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) is the first such agreement to fly scientists into space (over 100 kilometers or 328,000 feet above the Earth), enabling valuable microgravity, biology, climate, and astronomy research.
As part of the contract, SwRI has made full deposits for two researchers to fly on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, with the intent to make similar arrangements for an additional six seats — for a total value of $1.6 million. As well as flying its own researchers, who will carry scientific experiments developed by its in-house technical staff, SwRI aims to assist American researchers who do not have direct spaceflight experience to develop and fly their payloads and personnel on suborbital missions.
“This agreement signals the enormous scientific potential of the Virgin spaceflight system. Virgin Galactic will be able to offer researchers flights to space that are unprecedented in frequency and cost. Science flights will be an important growth area for the company in the years to come, building on the strong commercial success already demonstrated by deposits received from over 400 individuals for Virgin’s space experience,” says, George Whitesides, president and CEO of Virgin Galactic, commenting on the agreement.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is the only crewed suborbital vehicle in flight test today, and the only vehicle based on a spacecraft that has already sent humans into space, the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic offers a significantly larger cabin than any other company taking deposits today, enabling unique technology demonstrations and science experiments.
“Initially, two of our payload specialists will be flying on Virgin Galactic, conducting biomedical monitoring, atmospheric imaging, and microgravity planetary regolith experiments,” explains SwRI’s Dr. Alan Stern, associate vice president of SwRI’s Space Division, former NASA associate administrator for science, and principal investigator of this project. “We’re excited to be flying with Virgin Galactic to pioneer research missions on their amazing vehicles; we look forward to the not-so-distant day when entire Virgin Galactic flights are filled with researchers and their experiments.”
NASA has recognized the importance of this research platform through its new Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research Flight Opportunities program, which will open additional opportunities for researchers onboard suborbital vehicles. The Virgin Galactic-SwRI agreement represents another important endorsement of the value of regular commercial human space access for a wide range of science and educational applications.
This geek is encouraged to see this field thriving, with companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Google, and X Prize Foundation fostering greater development and growth. I see a bright future ahead for privatized space flight, which is likely to help infuse our economy with jobs and money as these new endeavors advance and grow more affordable.