Virgin Galactic announces international crew for flight on new Delta class space plane

three astronauts standing in a row in flight suits, smiling with their hands crossed
Three private astronauts assigned to a future Delta-class mission aboard Virgin Galactic, representing the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences. From left: Shawna Pandya (Canada), director of IIAS's space medicine group; Kellie Gerardi (U.S.), IIAS director of human spaceflight operations; Norah Patten (Ireland), aeronautical engineer and bioastronautics researcher. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic has named one of the first commercial astronaut crews for its Delta-class planes, set to fly no earlier than 2026.

The crew, announced on Thursday (June 20), includes past Virgin Galactic American private astronaut Kellie Gerardi, who flew aboard Galactic 05 in November 2023, along with Canadian Shawna Pandya and Ireland's Norah Patten. All three are part of the non-profit International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS), whose mandate includes testing technologies in suborbital aircraft and spacecraft, and performing educational activities.

The three crew members will expand on research that Gerardi (also IIAS director of human spaceflight) performed during Galactic 05, focusing on fluid behavior with applications to human health, Virgin officials said in a statement.

Virgin, founded by Richard Branson, announced the news two weeks after the final flight of its VSS Unity spaceplane on June 8. That flight carried a Turkish researcher and three private astronauts to space after being released from the VSS Eve carrier vehicle. Delta will allow for more frequent flights than the earlier generation once it flies, Virgin has said repeatedly, but as the upgrade happens no spaceflights will occur.

Related: Virgin Galactic launches VSS Unity space plane on final suborbital spaceflight with crew of 6 (photos, video)

"Beyond honored to lead the next IIAS research mission, advance the scientific knowledge gained from my first spaceflight, and to introduce my fellow payload specialists," Gerardi wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Pandya, director of IIAS' space medicine group, thanked the organization for nine years of support so far. "It is not lost on me that I am the first named Canadian female commercial astronaut, and the fourth Indian origin female astronaut," she wrote on LinkedIn. "These communities have shaped who I am, and I promise to do you proud."

Patten, an aeronautical engineer and bioastronautics researcher who currently expected to be Ireland's first private astronaut, reposted Virgin Galactic's announcement on X with the message: "This", along with emojis for a rocket and a star.

Former NASA astronaut Daniel Tani, who is married to an Irish citizen, has also called himself an astronaut from Ireland.

The Delta vehicles should be able to fly up to twice a week, Virgin representatives have said, and test flights are expected in 2025 with commercial operations beginning the following year. Virgin's tickets currently cost $450,000, but other passengers bought at lower prices over the decades.

The main competitor for Virgin in suborbital space tourism is Blue Origin, founded by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos. The company sends people to space on a rocket and capsule both called New Shepard. Blue Origin has not revealed its ticket prices.

Blue Origin most recently sent its seventh group to space, including Ed Dwight, a 90-year-old first U.S. black astronaut candidate. Blue Origin had a two-year pause in crewed operations after an uncrewed research mission failure in September 2022.

This article was corrected on June 24 to remove reference to an astronaut not from Ireland, and to add reference to spacecraft testing.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • MicchaelL65
    Without looking at the shoulder patches, tell me which one of these astronauts is Irish?
  • Cisventure Astronot
    I know this is pedantic… but why didn't you just copy the tweet's text instead of saying:

    "This", along with emojis for a rocket and a star.

    Those emojis are Unicode, so you can just copy and paste them like this: "This 🚀✨". The worst-case scenario is that they don't display properly, but would that even matter?

    Another way you could've saved us some time is by saying he "shared the sentiment". You wouldn't have saved anywhere near as much time as I'm wasting right now, but you would've saved time.

    Also, that's not a Unicode character for a star. There are several Unicode characters for a star, including the Asterisk, but that's not one of them. It's Sparkles. If anything, it would be a Unicode character for 3 stars.