What to Expect: Aboard Virgin Galactic’s Journey from Countdown to Touchdown

Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space plane, VSS Unity, recently completed its second mission as a science laboratory. Kellie Gerardi, a crewmember on Galactic 05 and Virgin Galactic Astronaut 021, shared her experience and the extensive training she underwent to conduct commercial suborbital research. Gerardi’s journey began a decade ago when she volunteered at the Explorers Club in New York City. There, she met Richard Garriott de Cayeux, who introduced her to the idea of commercial spaceflight. Inspired by the concept of democratizing access to space, Gerardi pursued a career in the field.

Gerardi’s training started two years before her flight. She worked with organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Masten Space Systems, gaining hands-on research experience. In 2017, she joined the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) and participated in an analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station. Gerardi trained extensively for microgravity conditions through parabolic flights and high-G training.

Two years before the flight, IIAS shared their planned experiments with Virgin Galactic. When Gerardi found out she would be flying those experiments, she felt a sense of gratitude and pressure to live up to expectations. She and Dr. Alan Stern, another crewmember on Galactic 05, underwent rigorous training, including simulator practice and training inside the actual space plane.

On the day of the flight, Gerardi experienced a mix of emotions, from excitement to nervousness. She described the moment of release from the mothership and the feeling of riding a rocket to the stars. Once in space, Gerardi focused on conducting her experiments, including studying the behavior of fluids in microgravity and wearing biomonitoring devices to collect data on body functions. She was amazed by the beauty of Earth seen from space and felt a profound connection to the planet.

After landing, Gerardi reunited with her daughter and reflected on the significance of her experience. She emphasized the importance of accessibility and representation in human spaceflight, hoping to inspire others to pursue their dreams. Gerardi believes that bringing one’s full self to space and embracing authenticity is essential for a meaningful human spaceflight experience.

Overall, Gerardi’s journey highlights the training, preparation, and emotional impact of participating in commercial suborbital research. Her experience serves as a testament to the growing opportunities in the commercial space industry and the importance of diversity and inclusion in space exploration.