NASA-Supported Plant Experiment Flew to Suborbital Space with Virgin Galactic

Three Kennedy Space Center Fixation Tubes (KFTs), like the one shown here, contained Arabidopsis thaliana plants during the crewed Unity 22 flight to space. Virgin Galactic’s Sirisha Bandla activated the tubes to release a preservative that captured the plants’ biochemistry at specific points during transitions into and out of microgravity, and co-investigators from the University of Florida will conduct gene expression analyses on the plants in the weeks following the flight. (Credits: University of Florida)

EDWARDS, Calif. (NASA PR) — On Sunday, July 11, Virgin Galactic conducted its first fully crewed spaceflight and the crew had NASA-supported technology with them. 

Sirisha Bandla, vice president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, operated the experiment on the “Unity 22” flight on behalf of co-investigators Dr. Robert Ferl and Dr. Anna-Lisa Paul from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Bandla activated three plant-filled tubes to release a preservative at critical data-collection stages during the flight: at 1 before the rocket boost, just before entering microgravity, and after the conclusion of microgravity.

While the university researchers have flown similar experiments  supported by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program on suborbital flights, data collected during the Unity 22 flight will provide a first look at human-tended payloads on SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic Successfully Completes First Fully Crewed Spaceflight

Richard Branson and other passengers float around in weightlessness. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Fourth Spaceflight Tests Private Astronaut and Research Experience
  • First In-Flight Livestream Brings Spaceflight Experience to Audiences Around the World 

LAS CRUCES, N.M. July 11, 2021 (Virgin Galactic PR) – Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: SPCE) (“the Company” or “Virgin Galactic”) today announced that VSS Unity successfully reached space, completing the Company’s fourth rocket-powered spaceflight. 

Today’s flight was the 22nd test flight of VSS Unity and the first test flight with a full crew in the cabin, including the Company’s founder, Sir Richard Branson. The crew fulfilled a number of test objectives related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the commercial customer cabin, the views of Earth from space, the conditions for conducting research and the effectiveness of the five-day pre-flight training program at Spaceport America.

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To Briefly Go: Billionaires Branson & Bezos Battle for Bragging Rights Where Few Have Gone Before

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Fewer than 25 suborbital spaceflights have ever been conducted
  • Most suborbital launches were conducted with vehicles retired decades ago
  • No suborbital flight has ever carried a paying passenger
  • There is no agreement on what even constitutes a suborbital spaceflight

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When Richard Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees strap into their seats aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on Sunday, they will briefly go where not very many have gone before: suborbital space.

Of the 374 attempts to launch astronauts to space since Yuri Gagarin flew into Earth orbit 60 years ago, only 23 were suborbital flights. The majority of those launches were conducted during the 1960’s using vehicles that long ago became museum pieces. One ended with the loss of the spacecraft and its pilot. And two flights were unintentional ones involving vehicles being launched into Earth orbit.

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NBC Today Show Segment with Richard Branson About Upcoming Virgin Galactic Suborbital Flight

Video Caption: At his SpacePort in New Mexico, where he is preparing to ride to the edge of space, this weekend, beating another billionaire, Jeff Bezos, by just over a week, Sir Richard Branson shared an exclusive look behind the scenes, including the spaceship he and five others will be flying in. NBC’s Tom Costello reports for TODAY from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

Editor’s Note: Everyone who sees SpaceShipTwo and goes crazy over it like Tom Costello does in this report. The vehicle is, as Branson says in the video, what you imagine a spaceship should look like. He has on multiple occasions accurately referred to it as “sexy”. Personally, it was one of the few things in Mojave that reminded me I am living in the 21st century.

But, looks can be deceiving. It’s a complex vehicle that requires two pilots to fly. The nitrous oxide SpaceShipTwo uses is a monopropellant, meaning it can explode on its own. It did once, claiming three the lives of three engineers working on the engine in an accident that NBC seems to have forgotten about. And the ship needs to be reconfigured for reentry using twin tail booms known as the feather. Premature unlocking of the system caused a fourth fatality and destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo.

Those specific issues have been addressed. But, the ship is still risky to fly on; it is rocket science. And there are no mandatory safety regulations to protect anyone on board. The technology is very much on the edge.

It’s kind of disturbing to see a reporter getting all excited and asking Branson when he can fly on it. He got seduced by the look of the vehicle and the excitement of the flight without fully understanding the risks or conveying them to viewers.

Costello was also talking to a guy who is a major risk taker. Branson included an appendix in his latest autobiography that chronicles 75 near-death experiences he has had in his life. The man thrives on facing danger and the enormous public attention his actions generate.

I don’t know if SpaceShipTwo flight is the riskiest thing he has ever done, but it’s pretty high up on the list. And this upcoming flight on Sunday is a test. SpaceShipTwo is still in a test flight program that has lasted 11 years.

The flight on Sunday will in all likelihood go just fine. But, space travel remains risky. It’s not simply a souped-up rollercoaster ride.

Spaceport America Bond Refinancing to Save $8.2 Million

Sunset at the “Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space” terminal hangar facility at Spaceport America. (Credit: Bill Gutman/Spaceport America)

SIERRA COUNTY, NM, June 25, 2021, (NMSA PR) — The New Mexico Spaceport Authority, an agency of the State of New Mexico, and operator of Spaceport America, has completed a $35.4 million refunding of its Public Project Revolving Funds of 2009 and 2010. The refinancing of the bonds significantly reduced the interest rates from about 4.50% to less than 0.80% per annum, which results in a savings of $8.2 million for New Mexico taxpayers over the remaining nine years of debt service payments.

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Launch 2020: U.S. Reclaimed Top Spot, Flew Astronauts Again from American Soil

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is launched from Launch Complex 39A on NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission to the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley aboard, Saturday, May 30, 2020, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls & Joel Kowsky)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The United States reclaimed the top spot in launches from China last year as NASA astronauts flew into orbit from American soil for the first time in nearly nine years, SpaceX deployed the world’s first satellite mega-constellation with reused rockets, and two new launchers debuted with less than stellar results.

American companies conducted 44 launches in 2020, with 40 successes and four failures. Bryce Tech reports that U.S. companies accounted for 32 of the 41 commercial launches conducted last year. The majority of those flights were conducted by SpaceX, which launched 25 orbital missions.

China came in second with a record of 35 successful launches and four failures. The 39 launch attempts tied that nation’s previous record for flights during a calendar year.

Let’s take a closer look at what U.S. companies achieved last year.

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Report: Virgin Orbit Preparing to Go SPAC

LauncherOne ignites after being dropped from Cosmic Girl. (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Following in the footsteps of its sister company, Virgin Orbit is preparing to go public through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC), Sky News reports.

Sky News can reveal that Virgin Orbit is close to finalising a deal to combine with NextGen Acquisition II, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) set up by George Mattson, a former Goldman Sachs banker.

Sources said this weekend that NextGen II was in exclusive talks with Sir Richard’s Low Earth Orbit satellite business, which is 80%-owned by the tycoon’s Virgin Group empire.

Mubadala, the Abu Dhabi sovereign fund, owns the remaining 20% of Virgin Orbit’s shares.

A definitive deal valuing Virgin Orbit at approximately $3bn (£2.1bn) could be announced in the coming weeks, according to insiders…

The choice of NextGen is a logical one, since Mr Mattson is a director of Virgin Galactic, and is an experienced aviation industry insider, having also been a director of Delta Air Lines for nearly nine years.

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A Look Back at Space Tourism Version 1.0 as New Gaggle of Millionauts Prepares to Fly

The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, poses with Soyuz TM-32 crew mates Talgat Musabayev, and Yuri Baturin in 2001. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

For eight years, they thundered aloft in cramped Russian spacecraft from a former Soviet spaceport in Kazakhstan, battling bureaucracy and gravity to blaze a trail across the heavens and redefine what it meant to be a space traveler. No longer would access to orbit be limited to highly trained astronauts chosen on merit and working on behalf of their nations; instead, space would be open to any sufficiently healthy people with enough money and moxie to qualify.

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Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson Aims to Fly to Space Before Jeff Bezos

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Fourth of July weekend could include some extra fireworks this year.

Updated with statement from Virgin Galactic on June 8, 2021 at 10:53 a.m. PDT.

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

It looks like Richard Branson could beat fellow billionaire Jeff Bezos to space next month.

Virgin Galactic is working on a plan to send Branson on a suborbital flight aboard the VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo rocket plane over the July 4 holiday weekend, according to a source who requested anonymity. The flight is contingent upon obtaining an operator’s license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

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Another Class Action Suit Filed Against Virgin Galactic

NEW YORK, June 1, 2021 (Levi & Korsinsky PR) – The following statement is being issued by Levi & Korsinsky, LLP:

To: All persons or entities who purchased or otherwise acquired securities of Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc. (“Virgin Galactic”) (NYSE: SPCE) between October 26, 2019 and April 30, 2021You are hereby notified that a securities class action lawsuit has been commenced in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York. To get more information go to:

https://www.zlk.com/pslra-1/virgin-galactic-holdings-inc-loss-submission-form?prid=16443&wire=5

or contact Joseph E. Levi, Esq. either via email at jlevi@levikorsinsky.com or by telephone at (212) 363-7500. There is no cost or obligation to you.

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New Shepard Auction Update: The Bid Remains the Same

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Checking up on Blue Origin’s auction of a seat on the first crewed New Shepard flight, we find that the top bid remains at $2.8 million. That’s exactly where it was a few days after online bidding became public on May 19.

Online bidding will end next Thursday, June 10 at 5 p.m. EDT (2100 UTC). Bidders need to raise their bid limits before that deadline. Two days later, the competition will conclude with a live online auction.

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