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Planetary Scientist Alan Stern Joins Virgin Galactic for Research Mission
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Planetary Scientist Alan Stern Joins Virgin Galactic for Research Mission
by Staff Writers
San Antonio TX (SPX) Oct 19, 2023

Dr. Alan Stern, a leading planetary scientist and the Associate Vice President of Southwest Research Institute's (SwRI) Space Science Division, will fly aboard the VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceship, on November 2. The upcoming flight is not just a personal milestone for Stern but is set as a precursor to a NASA-funded Virgin Galactic suborbital flight, during which he will execute two NASA experiments.

Stern shared his enthusiasm for this impending mission, stating, "When I was a kid, human spaceflight was only available to NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. Now that's changing, and SwRI is pioneering a new era of space research being conducted in space, by space scientists." He added that the upcoming journey is the "first flight in what I hope will be a long series for us."

For this mission, Stern will ascend more than 50 miles above Earth's surface, reaching speeds up to Mach 3. To put this into context, he will travel ten times higher than the cruising altitude of most commercial airliners.

Dr. James L. Burch, Senior Vice President of SwRI's Space Sector, commended Stern, saying, "It's very exciting news that Dr. Stern, after a lifetime of studying the cosmos, will have the chance to travel into space himself and see the curvature of the Earth just outside the window." Burch considers this a pivotal and inspiring moment for space scientists and the Institute alike.

The November 2 flight is financially backed by the Southwest Research Institute's internal research and development program, aimed at supporting pioneering research that can benefit their clientele.

Walt Downing, SwRI's Executive Vice President and COO, emphasized the long-standing commitment to this mission, stating, "This suborbital flight and scientific study are part of a Southwest Research Institute internally funded research program that began over a dozen years ago. We are excited to see the plans for this mission come to fruition at long last!"

During the flight, Stern will monitor his vital signs as part of the risk assessment and preparation for the NASA-funded experiment he is scheduled to conduct on a later flight. He will also test the spacecraft's suitability for astronomical observations. One of the key instruments Stern will utilize is the Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System (SWUIS), which he led the development of at SwRI.

Dr. Dan Durda, SwRI Principal Scientist and Co-Investigator, noted, "A suborbital flight presents a very fast-paced timeline and some very real distractions, including an incredible view, not present in our other training sessions. It's good to retire those risks before it really counts for the NASA-funded suborbital spaceflight."

As part of his preparation, Stern has already undergone multiple fighter aircraft flights and human centrifuge experiences to acclimatize himself to the extreme speeds and g-forces he will face. He has also completed over 20 parabolic flights to train in microgravity conditions.

The mission, poised for a November 2 launch, marks a significant moment in the normalization of space scientists participating in space travel, according to Stern. He is already training at SwRI facilities and will undergo a week of intense preparation, including a spacesuit fitting, at Spaceport America near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

ai.spacedaily.com analysis

Comprehensive Analyst Summary:

Relevance Scores:

1. Space and Defense Industry Analyst: 9/10
2. Stock and Finance Market Analyst: 7/10
3. Government Policy Analyst: 8/10

Main Points:

The article discusses Dr. Alan Stern's planned suborbital space mission aboard Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity. Funded by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the mission aims to pave the way for future NASA-funded experiments. Stern will be monitoring his vital signs and testing the suitability of the spacecraft for astronomy observations.

Implications for Respective Sectors:

1. Space and Defense Industry: The event highlights an increasing symbiosis between public institutions like NASA and private commercial ventures like Virgin Galactic. Dr. Stern's mission serves as a significant advancement for space research, operationalizing scientists as agents in their own data collection in space-something typically reserved for astronauts.

2. Stock and Finance Market: For investors, the involvement of a prominent scientist aboard a commercial spacecraft is a validation of the commercial space industry's maturity and potential profitability. It's a strong indicator that the market could expand beyond tourism to include research and defense contracts.

3. Government Policy: The mission serves as a live test-case for future regulatory frameworks involving public-private partnerships in space exploration and science. The successful implementation of such missions could inform policies regarding commercial spaceflight safety, research funding, and even national security considerations tied to space-based assets.

Comparison with Past Trends:

Over the last 25 years, the space and defense industry has seen a gradual shift from being a primarily government-funded endeavor to involving more public-private partnerships. The once rigid boundaries between astronauts and scientists are beginning to blur, echoing the transformative shift in the late 1990s and early 2000s when companies like SpaceX entered the market. However, it's notable that while commercial ventures have focused on orbital and interplanetary missions, this is among the first to aim at enabling science within a suborbital flight regime, which historically has been viewed more skeptically for its utility.

Investigative Questions:

1. How does the mission's risk assessment compare with traditional NASA risk protocols?

2. What is the expected ROI for Southwest Research Institute, and how does it plan to commercialize the findings?

3. How are policy-makers preparing for an era of frequent suborbital flights by space scientists?

4. What long-term effects could this mission have on the stock value of commercial space companies like Virgin Galactic?

5. Will these developments lead to more public funding being redirected towards private space initiatives rather than traditional governmental programs?

By synthesizing these multi-faceted implications, the article places itself at the convergence of technology, finance, and policy, offering valuable insights for stakeholders in each of these domains.

Related Links
Space Research at Southwest Research Institute
Space Tourism, Space Transport and Space Exploration News

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