The world is always looking for superheroes to solve the complex challenges facing our home planet. Thankfully, our planet is full of people looking to change the world for good – and we, at Virgin Galactic, are planning to provide a means to inspire their superpowers.
They’ll travel faster than three times the speed of sound but they’re more likely to be wearing lab coats than capes. Sirisha Bandla, our Vice President of Government Affairs, explains why the growth of the commercial space industry will help the world to produce more innovators.
So, how is the commercial space industry helping to produce more innovators?
Virgin Galactic is opening space for all – through tourism and research. SpaceShipTwo can routinely fly people and payloads to space which means scientists, engineers, and educators can have access to a microgravity environment on a regular and frequent basis. They will have access to longer and higher quality periods of microgravity on SpaceShipTwo than are available from a drop tower or parabolic flight, which opens up both new and better opportunities for research than has been possible in the past. Importantly, SpaceShipTwo can accommodate human-tended payloads – those experiments that require human interaction. Researchers can actually fly with their experiments to space – opening up a whole new paradigm for regular, accessible, space-based research. We are excited to see the future work the research community will carry out with this new capability for human-tended research spaceflight..
In addition to flying payloads for government agencies, commercial companies and research institutions, we will have the ability to provide students with opportunities to conduct space-based experimentation within the academic year or even during summer camp. Students will have the opportunity to participate in the engineering and scientific process and actually have their payload fly to space and back. We are hoping to inspire students when they are young always to reach for the stars - wherever their future takes them!
How do you fly a payload on Virgin Galactic?
It starts with our Payload Users Guide which describes the requirements for a safe flight to space and back. Our payloads team is alongside our customers every step of the way – whether they have flown hundreds of payloads into space before, or whether this is the very first time. We are aiming to provide a seamless service and remove some of the complexity traditionally associated with space – based or microgravity research, allowing customers to focus on their research objectives.
In the immediate period before each flight,, we run through a series of checks to make sure each payload will successfully and safely operate during the flight before finally installing the payload on SpaceShipTwo. If a payload requires late-loading, it is possible, for example, to load samples closer to the time our vehicles take off from the runway.
Upon landing, payloads will typically be in the hands of our research customers within hours. However, we can also retrieve any samples that need quick access to a laboratory environment shortly after wheels stop. I remember on one of our previous flights, after SpaceShipTwo had landed, I caught a researcher just standing and staring at their payload. I stopped to ask if something was wrong with the payload, and they replied, “Nothing is wrong, I’m just in awe of the fact that I handed my payload to the engineers last night, and it has flown to space and is now back in my hands….before lunchtime”. This is the new normal for space-based research.
What does this mean for experiments and discoveries?
This new age of commercial spaceflight, will allow for frequent and more affordable flights to space for researchers and their payloads, which means payloads can be flown multiple times, gathering more data than has ever been possible. In addition, suborbital flights could provide stepping stones to orbital spaceflight for many payloads and technologies. Researchers have the ability to test their technologies on a suborbital flight before longer duration missions to Low Earth Orbit, the ISS, or even further destinations in the solar system.
And, with the addition of human tended payloads on board of these vehicles, we are opening up the aperture for the kind of science that can be conducted in space and that could have the potential to make life-changing discoveries for all of us back here on Earth. . .
Has Virgin Galactic flown payloads aboard SpaceShipTwo?
Yes, we’ve flown payloads on each of our flights to space. A few of them have flown multiple times. The interest from the research community has been wide-ranging from biology to atmospheric science to planetary science. In our last flight, we flew a payload from the University of Central Florida named “COLLIDE”. The experiment aimed to better understand the behavior of particles in a dusty environment in response to human or robotic activities. This research is important to future exploration missions to the Moon and Mars. We have also flown a payload that tested imaging technologies to capture gene expression patterns of plants. The payload was designed by Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul and Dr. Rob Ferl of the University of Florida. They are studying how plants adapt to different environmental stressors – such as that of the microgravity environment. The payload captured which genes were being turned on or off during the flight to space and back. I found this fascinating as it is growing our understanding about how plants can adapt to changing environments, such as the experience of spaceflight or even what’s happening on our very own planet.
Is it only professional scientists who can conduct these experiments?
Absolutely not. One of the areas we are most excited about is using spaceflight for education. Virgin Galactic is opening the door to space for people of all backgrounds, nationalities, and professions. However, we also have the potential to bring space into schools to educate and inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, and future astronauts. The frequency and lower cost of our flights means, for instance, that in the future you could literally have a curriculum where children could design a payload, build it, fly it to space, and then analyze the results - all in the length of an academic year. Our hope is to break the barrier of what students think is impossible, and to bring the opportunity of spaceflight to all students, especially to those groups underrepresented in STEM. Together, with the support of amazing educators, we can help build a solid STEM foundation for the next generation of diverse and passionate innovators.
What inspired you to work in space?
I have always been interested in space growing up, but I never felt like it could be a career for me until I learned about Kalpana Chawla, a NASA astronaut and the first woman of Indian origin to travel to space. Seeing someone who looked like me, in a role I dreamed about, gave me the inspiration to pursue a career in the space industry.
It was at this point that I started formulating my plan to become a pilot, join the air force and then go to NASA. The problem was that I soon discovered I could never become a pilot (or an astronaut!) due to my poor eyesight. I was left scrambling around trying to work out what to do when I saw SpaceShipOne win the Xprize and Sir Richard Branson announce plans for Virgin Galactic. I instantly made it my mission to work for that company – and here I am!
Representation is important, and with Virgin Galactic’s Future Astronauts, we will have a more diverse group of people who will have traveled to space. I have no doubt that one of them will inspire more young women to reach for their dreams.
What’s your favorite thing about working for Virgin Galactic?
I was a Star Trek nerd growing up and have always been infatuated with the idea of living on a space station or exploring the universe on a starship. At Virgin Galactic, I feel I am playing a role in advancing human spaceflight and expanding Earth’s economic sphere into space - the beginnings of my Star Trek visions! However, the more work I do with the research community conducting microgravity research, the more I am learning about our current starship, Earth. Virgin Galactic is taking a huge step in providing frequent human spaceflight and research opportunities which are contributing to both the exploration of the universe, as well as improving life on our home planet.