A little less than a year ago, Sirisha Bandla was seated in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft. She was minutes away from a journey to weightlessness and the edge of space.
Bandla, along with three other crew members (including the company’s founder, Richard Branson) and two pilots, made history on 11 July 2021, successfully completing Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed spaceflight. In doing so, Bandla, vice-president of government affairs and research operations at Virgin Galactic, became only the fourth person of Indian origin ever to go past the line of space, also known as the Kármán line.
“People often ask me if I was nervous before my spaceflight,” says Bandla, who visited India recently. “Having been with the company since 2015, knowing the team, the culture and that we have a very strong safety foundation—I wasn’t. I slept very well the night before.”
It was an event watched all over the world on a livestream as Branson, Bandla and the other crew members floated around inside VSS Unity, taking in a view of Earth that only a select few have witnessed in the history of human spaceflight. The crew fulfilled a number of test objectives, some related to the cabin and customer experience, including evaluating the conditions for conducting research, which is Bandla’s area of expertise.
On his return, Branson said that he had dreamt about this moment since he was a child and couldn’t wait to share this experience with aspiring astronauts around the world. “Working with Richard is great. He is the expert in human experience,” says Bandla. “Things I notice are completely different from where he is coming from… It's incredible to see how his mind works and how different it is from my engineering-technical mind.”
In an interview with Lounge, Bandla speaks about making space tourism more affordable, conducting research in microgravity, and what the Indian space industry can offer to the world. Edited excerpts:
What brings you to India? Is there something on the cards here from Virgin Galactic?
I typically come back because a lot of my family still lives in India but I haven’t been here since pre-pandemic. We have some future astronauts and customers that are from India. Some of them live overseas. For us, as we get into commercial operations, I am hoping to see a lot more work with researchers and scientists in India.
India has always been on the forefront of science and technology. We would love to be a part of that as a partner to enable more science and technology from a sub-orbital space platform.
It has been almost a year since the Unity 22 mission. You were only in space for around 15 minutes but managed to finish an experiment. Could you tell me more about that?
The whole trip is 90 minutes. The time in microgravity is three-four minutes.You think that is not too long but you can do a lot of science and technology development in that time. The innovative part of it is that it is going to happen often.
Sub-orbital vehicles, especially Virgin Galactic, are going to be flying at a cadence much higher than you see orbital vehicles flying. So researchers have an opportunity to fly multiple times, do iterative development, build campaigns, test hypotheses and do it again.
My role on Unity 22 was in collaboration with the University of Florida. I took up three tubes called the Kennedy Space Centre Fixation tubes. They house a plant which was genetically modified to express certain genes in response to the environment that it was introduced to. I activated the first tube at 1G (G-force). I did it in-flight when we were climbing to the altitude on the spacecraft. The second one was activated right after the high-G portion, which was the rocket motor boost, and the last one at the end of the weightlessness portion, after the spacecraft was introduced to the microgravity and weightlessness period for a few minutes.
These tubes are in the lab and being looked at, at the moment. The researchers are still looking at the results.
What do you think we can expect from the private-commercial spaceflight and space tourism sector in the near future?
What you can expect is those cadence of flights.... The frequency of flights, access to space, creating those opportunities not only for tourism purposes, which I do think have a great effect on humanity, and also for research purposes.
You are also seeing a diversity of vehicles entering the market. You will have a pipeline, especially from the science side, of researchers conducting work on parabolic aircraft and then moving to sub-orbital. Then moving to orbital (aircraft) if they need to. A lot of our researchers have found that the time they have had in sub-orbital space is enough.
As we move forward, you are seeing these vehicles that people have been talking about come to fruition and fly, and fly often. That’s really key: the increased access to space.
There’s a debate on whether there’s a distinction between the terms “space tourists”, “amateur astronauts” and actual astronauts, who go through years of training. What are your thoughts on this?
I think the focus really should be on the journey. It is such a perspective-changing and transformational experience for anyone that does it. I have not heard of an astronaut that had gone to space and come back to say that it was boring. Everyone’s going to have a different reaction.
You have heard of the “overview effect”. People are going to come back energised. People are going to come back and use that opportunity to further positive change in whatever projects they are pursuing. You are debating about words but what is important is what the person goes through. It is an absolutely transformational journey.
My personal opinion: I think the more astronauts, the better.
An August 2021 AFP story said “a Virgin Galactic space ticket will cost you $450,000”. With that kind of price in discussion, how many people do you think will be able to access space tourism and what kind of individuals is a company like Virgin Galactic targeting?
$450,000 is our current ticket price. We have over 800 people ready and excited to fly. As we scale up—we have two spaceships now—we are going to be manufacturing a fleet and getting to a cadence of 400 flights per year out of the spaceport. We hope to see that scale bringing the price down in the future.
In the meantime, we are partnering with organisations like Space for Humanity and hopefully are able to provide more tickets for people that cannot put up the $450,000. We announced a winner last year, and she’s going to fly her daughter with her to space. It’s through programmes like these that we are hoping to bring that access to everyone.
Looking at our customers, each person has a different reason for wanting to go to space. One of our customers (in India) is in Hyderabad. For some people, it is the thing that they want to do.
What do you think Isro, the Indian space agency, and the Indian space industry can offer to the world?
Isro has been working on investing in capabilities on orbit, to monitor climate, adverse weather. I think that really showcases a space agency’s strength—not only to drive science and our knowledge sphere outward into the universe but use that information to help the country and the people living in it. I think Isro is doing a great job. With the increase in the number of flights and commercial capabilities, partnerships with agencies to do some of the more “mundane” tasks will free up resources for the government to do even more ambitious things that don’t have a commercial market yet. So, partnerships with the commercial industry isn’t a competition. It is a supplement to aid an agency’s existing missions and objectives.
When we speak about experiments in space or finding habitable zones to explore in the future, everything comes back to this: benefits to humanity. What does space tourism offer in that sense?
I believe that the more people that have that experience and journey in space will come back energised to change and do good. It doesn’t have to be “do good in space”. It could be any project or any cause that is close to that person’s heart. That was something I definitely felt. I wasn’t changed. But I came back wanting to do more. When you see the planet and you see that that is the home housing everybody you have ever known, you want to come back and protect it.