New Horizons Pluto probe leader Alan Stern is going to space with Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner captured this view of Earth during the vehicle's first trip to space, on Dec. 13, 2018.
Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity spaceliner captured this view of Earth during the vehicle's first trip to space, on Dec. 13, 2018. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic just added a big-name scientist to its passenger list.

Alan Stern, who leads NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, has been selected to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic's suborbital space plane. 

It won't just be a pleasure cruise: Stern was chosen via NASA's Flight Opportunities program to conduct agency-funded research on the future flight, which has yet to be scheduled.

Related: How Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo works (infographic)

"This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles," Stern, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement on Wednesday (Oct. 15), when the news was announced. 

He described his selection as a "potential sea change" that could pave the way for much more extensive human-tended research in space down the road.

The two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo is hauled aloft by a carrier plane called WhiteKnightTwo, which drops the space plane at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). SpaceShipTwo then fires up its rocket motor and makes its own way to suborbital space.

Passengers and scientific payloads along for the ride will get to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space. More than 600 customers have booked a seat aboard SpaceShipTwo, at a ticket price (most recently) of $250,000, Virgin Galactic representatives have said.

Virgin Galactic is building several SpaceShipTwo vehicles and has another one, called VSS Unity, up and running. Unity has already completed two piloted demonstration flights to suborbital space and is wrapping up its test campaign at Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic's commercial hub.

When Stern goes up, he will test a low-light camera to gauge its potential for future astronomical observations. His vital signs will also be monitored throughout the entire two-hour mission as a biomedical experiment, SwRI representatives said.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern, a planetary scientist based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, will conduct experiments on one of Virgin Galactic's suborbital missions. (Image credit: Aubrey Gemignani/NASA)

The camera tech is one of 31 newly selected experiments that will get a commercial flight test through the Flight Opportunities program. Some of these tests will occur aboard suborbital vehicles such as SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin's New Shepard craft, while others will ride on high-altitude balloons and airplanes that induce brief periods of microgravity via parabolic flight. You can read about all the experiments from NASA here.

The coming mission will be the first spaceflight for Stern, a former NASA science chief who has been on 29 different space-mission science teams during his long and varied career.

"Going to work in space myself for the first time after having spent so many years sending machines there to do the research for me is going to be a major career highlight, and something I am honored to be selected for," he said in the same statement. "But I hope this is just the first of a steady stream of flights by SwRI researchers doing work in space in the years and decades ahead."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.