SpaceShipTwo glide flight in NM
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo approaches the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico May 1, the first test flight of the suborbital spaceplane from that facility. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected its first human-tended commercial suborbital research payload, clearing the way for the biggest advocate of such research to fly on a future Virgin Galactic mission.

NASA announced Oct. 14 it selected a proposed experiment by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) as part of its Flight Opportunities program for testing technologies on suborbital vehicles and aircraft. That experiment will test the operation of a camera designed to work at low light levels in order to see how it could be used for astronomical imaging, as well as a separate suite of biomedical sensors.

What sets this experiment apart from the other 30 payloads NASA selected in this latest round of the Flight Opportunities program, as well as those picked in previous rounds, is that the payload will include a person. Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and associate vice president at SwRI, will go on a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight, wearing the biomedical sensors and operating the camera.

NASA announced in January that it would, for the first time, allow researchers to fly with their payloads. Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for space technology, who oversees the Flight Opportunities program, said at the time that flying researchers “is increasingly viable and being demonstrated,” such as in Virgin Galactic’s test flight program.

Stern has long been a leading advocate for commercial suborbital research in general, and flying researchers in particular. Stern organized a series of conferences on the subject starting in 2010, with the most recent one taking place in March. SwRI paid deposits for several seats on both SpaceShipTwo and now-defunct XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx suborbital vehicle.

“Going to work in space myself for the first time after having spent so many years sending machines there to do the research for me is going to be a major career highlight, and something I am honored to be selected for,” said Stern, who, outside of his advocacy for suborbital research, is best known as the principal investigator for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. “But I hope this is just the first of a steady stream of flights by SwRI researchers doing work in space in the years and decades ahead.”

NASA’s announcement it would support researchers flying on commercial suborbital vehicles came after the Italian Air Force signed a contract with Virgin Galactic in October 2019 for a future dedicated SpaceShipTwo flight. That mission will include three Italian researchers.

“We have strong evidence of the global demand for suborbital research flight, reflected in our recently signed contract with the Italian Air Force,” said Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic. “The announcement made today by NASA and the Southwest Research Institute is the beginning of a new and bigger opportunity for the role of suborbital spaceflight in space-based research.”

Virgin Galactic separately announced Oct. 14 it was moving ahead with its first powered SpaceShipTwo test flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company announced during an earnings call Aug. 3 that it would perform the test flight, with two pilots on board as well as Flight Opportunities research payloads, in the fall.

In a Sept. 1 license application with the Federal Communications Commission, the company said it planned to perform a “crewed, powered test flight” of SpaceShipTwo on Oct. 22. That would come after two test flights of the vehicle’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft scheduled for Oct. 1 and Oct. 7.

Those dates, like with other FCC license applications, represented “no earlier than” dates, and not a firm schedule. In its Oct. 14 announcement, the company noted it represented only the opening of the test window.

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates” for either the SpaceShipTwo flight or earlier WhiteKnightTwo flights, stating only that the powered test flight would take place “later this fall.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...