Sunday, July 11, 2021

Manifesting Space Dreams Into Reality


Forming my dreams at the 2010 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference

Human spaceflight always has been emotional for me. From the very first space shuttle launch I saw at NASA Kennedy Space Center when I was a new freshman in college to the new commercial vehicles conducting test flights, there's a mix of rush, excitement, and fear. Lives are on the line. The memory of those we've lost are a constant reminder that these brave pioneers could die before my eyes. But spaceflight is one of the most grand undertakings humanity has ever accomplished. And I want to join them, personally.

It's difficult to express how meaningful it is to know someone preparing to fly to space and to watch them make that dream a reality. I've met over 50 flown astronauts and a few who were selected by NASA but hadn't yet had their chance to fly. But of the astronauts I've gotten to know for more than a brief meeting or two, I knew none of them before their spaceflights. When I met them, they already symbolized that beyond-sky-high achievement that seems out-of-reach for so many of us.

When Alan Stern was selected in October last year to become NASA's first sponsored suborbital researcher on a future Virgin Galactic flight, I was elated. I've known Alan since I was a graduate student and I've worked with him on a number of small projects. I've watched him champion for human-tended suborbital science within NASA and the wider space community.

Alan and two of his colleagues at Southwest Research Institute, Dan Durda and Cathy Olkin, already held tickets to fly as researchers on Virgin Galactic (and XCOR Aerospace back in the day) via SwRI. But there was something about the NASA selection that made it feel more real, more official, more notable. NASA astronaut selection and training is a highly rigorous process with an elite group of very few people wearing the coveted title of NASA astronaut. For NASA to select someone outside of that tight selection process to fly on a suborbital spaceflight on behalf of NASA, that stood out to me as different. As more attainable. As a way for me and others like me to fly as a researcher someday.

My friend Kellie Gerardi blew me away with the way she defined her dream to fly to space (read her book Not Necessarily Rocket Science) and then made it happen! In June, the International Institute of Astronautical Sciences selected her to fly on a future Virgin Galactic research flight. I burst into tears when I heard the news! Not only was I thrilled for Kellie, I recognized her in myself. We share the same dreams and the same motivations. She's making her dream happen. So can I.

On July 1, Virgin Galactic announced the crew of its next test flight with Sirisha Bandla on board. One of my first memories of Sirisha was watching her assist with a raffle at the 2012 Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, both of us watching as someone in the audience won a trip to suborbital space with XCOR Aerospace. XCOR may not have made it, but Sirisha did.

Knot in my throat, I teared up as I watched Virgin Galactic astronaut 004 Sirisha Bandla soar to space today with the rest of the Unity22 crew, focused on suborbital science all the while. Sirisha accomplished her dream today. I can too. And so can so many others who saw her fly today and were inspired by her accomplishment.

One of the first times I met Alan when I was a graduate student, he asked me what I was doing to accomplish my goals. He meant it as a rhetorical question to emphasize a point: it's not enough to dream, we need to take actions to pursue our dreams. It wasn't until Alan spoke at the first Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in 2010 that I even considered the possibility of becoming a suborbital researcher. Now I've witnessed Sirisha make history doing so and I'm cheering on Kellie, Alan, Dan, and others who will someday as well. My dream is to fly suborbital science myself someday. And/or go to the Moon, of course.

What am I doing to make my dream happen? The beauty of this new industry is that there are multiple ways to pursue my dream. I'm involved in the space community, assisting with space payloads and supporting space companies. I'm entering various contests by Inspiration4, DearMoon, Omaze, and others to win a trip to space. I've spoken with flown astronauts and future flyers for my upcoming book on private spaceflight, hoping to better prepare my readers and myself for a future where we ourselves will fly. I'm always open to someone sponsoring my ride – call me!

They can do it. The crew of Unity22 have done it. The crew of Blue Origin's upcoming New Shepard flight are preparing to do it. We can do it too. Space belongs to all of us. This is just the very beginning of newly paved narrow-but-widening paths to allow us all to reach our dream of spaceflight.