28 September 2020

Flying payloads on Virgin Galactic


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.





George T. Whitesides is the Chair of the Space Advisory Board, where he is responsible for bringing together aerospace leaders to advise the Virgin Galactic senior management team on the journey towards regular commercial spaceflight, developing the next generation vehicles and exploring new opportunities. Previously, George served as the Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic, spearheading the development of future technologies, including high speed, point-to-point travel and orbital flight, after stepping down as CEO in 2020.

George joined Virgin Galactic in 2010 as Chief Executive Officer. During George’s 10 years with the Company, he built the company from 30 people to a workforce of over 900, successfully guiding Virgin Galactic through its human space flight R&D and flight test program, culminating in two space flights. These historic flights saw the first humans launched into space from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, as well as the first woman to fly on a commercial space vehicle. George led the transition of operations from Mojave, California to Spaceport America, New Mexico, and oversaw the company’s successful public listing making it a multi-billion dollar company and creating the world’s first publicly traded human spaceflight venture.

Prior to Virgin Galactic, George served as Chief of Staff for NASA. Upon departure from the American space agency, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the agency confers.

George’s volunteer service includes Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, Princeton University’s Advisory Council for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Antelope Valley Economic Development & Growth Enterprise. He is a fellow of the UK Royal Aeronautical Society and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He previously served as Vice Chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, chair of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, a member of the Board of Directors of Virgin Galactic, a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies, and the Board of Virgin Unite USA. George has testified on American space policy before the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. An honors graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, George later earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Tunisia. George is a licensed private pilot and certified parabolic flight coach.

He resides in California with his wife Loretta and two children.




Colonel Chris Hadfield is a heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and test pilot who has commanded the International Space Station. Formerly NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia and veteran of three spaceflights, Hadfield’s many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Hadfield is a three-time NYT bestselling author, a renowned musician, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, chair of the board of the Open Lunar Foundation, and host of several internationally acclaimed television series. In addition, Hadfield leads the space stream at the Creative Destruction Lab, one of the world’s top tech incubators.




Dr. Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is the Principal at AstroPlanetview, LLC. Most recently she served as the Deputy Director of Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Undersecretary of Research and Engineering. In that role she served as the “Chief Engineer” for the Department of Defense establishing engineering policy, propagating best practices and working to connect the engineering community across the department.

Dr. Magnus is the former Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Prior to leading AIAA, she was a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps for 16 years. During her time at NASA she flew in space on the STS-112 shuttle mission in 2002, and on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. In addition, she flew to the International Space Station on STS-126 in November 2008, served as flight engineer and science officer on Expedition 18, and returned home on STS-119 after four and a half months on board.

Following her assignment on Station, she served at NASA Headquarters in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Her last duty at NASA, after STS-135, was as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office.

While at NASA, Dr. Magnus worked extensively with the international community, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as with Brazil on facility-type payloads. She also spent time in Russia developing and integrating operational products and procedures for the International Space Station.

Before joining NASA, Dr. Magnus worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company as a stealth engineer. While at McDonnell Douglas, she worked on internal R&D and on the Navy’s A-12 Attack Aircraft program.

Dr. Magnus has received numerous awards, including the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the 40 at 40 Award (given to former collegiate women athletes to recognize the impact of Title IX).




Dr. David A. Whelan is the SVP Chief-Scientist of Cubic Corporation. Dr. Whelan retired from Boeing in 2017, as the Vice President, Engineering (BDS) and Board of Directors for HRL Laboratories. Whelan served as Director of the Tactical Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and began his career at Northrop as designer of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Whelan is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Physical Society and IEEE. He earned his Ph.D. Physics from UCLA; He holds over 75 US patents.