From Countdown to Touchdown: Flying Aboard Virgin Galactic

by Sawyer Rosenstein

For only the second time, VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space plane, was transformed into a science laboratory. Galactic 05 successfully completed its mission on Nov. 2, but for Kellie Gerardi, Galactic 05 crewmember and Virgin Galactic Astronaut 021, the training and preparation for the flight goes back almost a decade. She sat down with NSF to detail what it takes to conduct commercial suborbital research.

Gerardi said her training began two years before the flight, but unofficially started a decade ago. She volunteered as a coat checker at the Explorers Club in New York City while in college. The organization is an esteemed society that aims to promote and recognize pioneers in scientific exploration and field study. Honorees include the Apollo 11 crew, Elon Musk, Sir Edmund Hillary, and more.

Kellie Gerardi in her flight suit prior to the mission. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

While volunteering, she met Richard Garriott de Cayeux, a video game designer who, in addition to being the son of NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, purchased a seat aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket and visited the International Space Station in 2008. Gerardi thanks Garriott de Cayeux for first introducing her to the idea of commercial spaceflight.

“I graduated the same year that the space shuttle program retired, and I was oblivious to the existence at that time of this sort of nascent commercial industry and it blew my mind,” Gerardi said. “I just remember thinking ‘I want to be a part of that’ and so the goal was never even originally how do I get myself to fly? It was how do I help create the Star Trek future where we’re democratizing access to space, we’re expanding Earth’s economic sphere?”

That encounter led her to meet the Suborbital Researchers Group, which included Dr. Alan Stern, who would fly alongside her on Galactic 05.

Gerardi worked with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) before joining Masten Space Systems. During that time, she was able to work a few test stands away from Virgin Galactic’s work zone in the Mojave Desert.

She got her first taste of astronaut life and hands-on research while participating in an analog mission at the Mars Desert Research Station while joining the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences (IIAS) in 2017.

“I was supposed to be there in 2016, but I was pregnant and couldn’t fly,” Gerardi said. “So, literally right after I gave birth, and when I say literally, I mean I was still wearing Spanx under my flight suit to keep all of my organs in place, I was like right there. That was really exciting because we tested a real prototype of their EVA suit during the Mars Desert Research Station rotation.”

Kellie Gerardi donning her EVA suit as part of Mars Desert Research Station Crew 149. (Credit: Kellie Gerardi)

During this time, she began working for Palantir. All of these experiences would lead Gerardi to her first flight to the edge of space.

IIAS shared which experiments they planned to fly with Virgin Galactic more than two years before the actual flight took place, Gerardi said. When she found out she would be flying those experiments, she had a different reaction than most might expect.

Gerardi aboard a microgravity training flight. (Credit: Kellie Gerardi)

“I know that I’m supposed to say I never could have dreamed of this, but that wouldn’t be true because I dreamed of that in detail, excruciating detail,” Gerardi said. “When I knew that I was having the opportunity to fly, of course it’s like an overwhelming gratitude for the trust that IIAS is placing in me, the confidence they’re placing in me, the pressure that is being placed on my shoulders to be the, you know, best ambassador that I could be, not only for IIAS but also for suborbital science generally, for the commercial space industry, for women in STEM, for just like, you know, pick your sort of roulette slot, and I felt a sense of pressure to live up to those expectations.”

Gerardi says she and Dr. Stern both agreed one of their most useful experiences in preparing for the actual flight was parabolic microgravity flights, where an airplane pitches up, giving passengers nearly 2G of force pushing against them, before pitching over and downward in the shape of a parabola, allowing just under 30 seconds of near zero-G conditions.

Gerardi and Stern partnered with the National Research Council of Canada, which allowed for microgravity training aboard a Dassault Falcon 20 aircraft.

“It is a very dynamic environment in space, especially like immediately post-boost, and you’ve got the main engine cutoff (MECO), and then you’ve got the coast to apogee, but when the reaction control system (RCS) is firing in that vehicle, it’s like something that was two inches away is now two feet away, and the vehicle inverts,” Gerardi said. “So that part of flight, it’s like you can academically prepare for it, and you know what’s going to happen, and they prepare you so well. But when you’re experiencing it, it’s like, thank God we had that muscle memory to rely on of parabolic flight, because when you’re doing something with fine motor, like I’m opening a payload stowage solution, I’m unstowing, I’m securing, I’m doing things, and that I don’t think I would have been able to do had I not had that extensive experience in microgravity.”

IIAS facilities in Florida also allowed for flights aboard an Extra 300 for high-G training.

There was one additional piece of training that happened before getting hands-on experience at Spaceport America in New Mexico; training to use a maximum absorbency garment (MAG).

“This was just not on my vision board when I dreamed of going to space as a little girl,” Gerardi said.

She said they were instilled with the importance of hydration.

“You’re in the desert and it’s so hot, and if there is a delay, you don’t want to accidentally restrict your hydration,” Gerardi noted. “Hydration really makes a difference with G tolerance. If you’re dehydrated, you can lose up to half a G of tolerance in your ability to withstand high G-forces. So it’s really important. So I understood why MAGs are so important and helpful.”

She also noted it could be helpful for somebody who might have a nervous bladder to be able to fully enjoy the flight. Besides field testing it, she noted something special about hers.

“It was space-themed,” Gerardi noted while chuckling. “It was like little kids like drawing [a] space-themed diaper. So yeah, it was really funny.”

One week before the flight, the crew arrived for official pre-flight training in New Mexico. Gerardi notes the training for herself and Dr. Stern was different from the third passenger, Ketty Maisonrouge, who was participating as a paying customer as opposed to a researcher.

“That was just because there’s different operational and safety concerns when you’re free-floating things or like stowing things,” Gerardi noted.

Training included practice inside a simulator as well as inside the actual ship, VSS Unity.

“They have a full mock-up of the vehicle that they close off and they run with audio, pilot audio, and visual out the windows,” Gerardi remembered. “You see like on screens like you dropping away from [the mothership] Eve. And so those were really high-fidelity simulations that were built to spec. And so we ran through those, Alan and I ran through those with our payload team a number of times.”

She noted that throughout the whole process, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was watching. That included someone from the FAA present via Zoom during key tests including bailout and oxygen training.

Gerardi undergoing hypoxia training in 2021. (Credit: Kellie Gerardi)

When it came to the training aboard the actual space plane, Gerardi compared it to memorizing choreography. She said the last thing she wanted was to be the first participant allowed to free-float an experiment and mess it up, removing the ability for future flyers to perform something similar.

“I mean even the night before I was in my hotel room with a blindfold on doing a one-handed version of the release [of the payload] over and over again,” Gerardi said. “I had a backup mock-up and just practicing so that even if all other senses were impaired, I was going to be able to get that thing safely stowed.”

Gerardi’s three experiments included the previously mentioned free-floating experiment known as “Configuration of a Confined Fluid in a Low-Gravity Environment,” with the goal of better predicting and controlling the shape of fluids in microgravity to help prevent an incident like in 2013 when ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano nearly drowned during a spacewalk as a result of a clogged filter. The hope is to also use the data to develop syringe designs for administering medicine in space.

She wore Astroskin, a biomonitoring device that is also currently used aboard the ISS. This device tracks body functions such as heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature, with Gerardi’s mission marking the first time it was used to collect data during the launch, re-entry, and landing phases of flight.

Gerardi also wore a continuous blood glucose monitor. This was attached a few days before her flight and she was wearing it when this interview was conducted less than a week after her flight. The monitor was used to gather data that may help to address concerns that insulin resistance might develop more quickly during spaceflight.

One of the key differences Gerardi noted in the training for Galactic 05 compared to other vehicles was the ability to make changes to payload storage and functions on the plane as late as the day before flight. Those plans are typically finalized months in advance on longer-duration spaceflights.

“Alan changed one of the stowage solutions for his payload with his carabiner and his tether the day before flight,” Gerardi remembered. “It was such a better solution, too, that if we had been of, I don’t know, restricted to dogmatically enforced timelines just for the sake of locking it in, but without the ability to have any sort of pragmatic thinking, we would have had a suboptimal solution that could have resulted in us interfering with each other’s choreography.”

Gerardi notes one of her biggest struggles was to be able to turn on a GoPro camera and verify that it was recording 15 minutes prior to release.

“The payload was right next to me on my right side, and only with my middle finger could I like barely graze the top, but I wouldn’t be able to check that the light was on and can you imagine if I did all of this and the GoPro light wasn’t on,” Gerardi anxiously remembered?

“What I ended up being able to do was loosen one of my left shoulder straps, maintain positive control of it, but maneuver my body to reach down and check and see the light reflecting off of my finger from the GoPro and then re-strap up and tell them cabin was secure, and the fact that I was able to make those modifications, it was great to be able to work with the [Virgin Galactic] team.”

Then it all came down to flight day.  Gerardi said her suit was hung out for her similar to how her wedding dress was when she got married. Then it was time to board Unity.

“I mean that was maybe one of the most profound parts of the flight seeing all my family and friends, amazing, as we were taxiing away, but the last thing I saw was all of the Virgin Galactic flight line engineers in a line waving us off and sending us off,” Gerardi recalled. “I know what it’s like to send hardware to space and to feel that, but sending colleagues and humans and people that you just sealed off and put in there. I mean, it was just, I had chills kind of from that visual and it was so meaningful.”

The Galactic 05 crew walking out on launch day. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

The mothership Eve, with VSS Unity underneath, took off at 9:00 AM local time from Spaceport America, beginning a climb to a release altitude near 50,000 feet. Gerardi remembered the clear blue skies that day, including her family being able to see the entirety of her flight from the ground. However it was something in the air that jumped out at her.

“I got to see this gradient of blue going from the lightest to the darkest navy and then it got really dark real quick,” Gerardi said with a child-like smile across her face. “For a few moments circling at that release altitude, I just thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world. And then a few minutes later I thought something else was the most beautiful thing in the world. But it was, like, staggering. That mental picture stands out to me on most immediate recall.”

Then came the moment of release, which Dr. Stern called ‘surreal.’

“You’re dropped and you just watch Eve go, whoosh, and then all of a sudden, you’re flat on your back, and it’s like riding a rocket to the stars,” Gerardi vividly remembered. “I mean, you’re just going backwards, and you feel that you’re riding a rocket. Like, it is right behind you…I’ve done a ton of high-G flights. I’ve done centrifuge training, I’ve done it all, but just being on your back and riding a rocket to the stars was like, I just, it was like sci-fi. And it was so cool.”

Gerardi said she had a smile plastered on her face the entire time and is looking forward to seeing the raw flight footage to recall her expressions.

“I looked at the brief clips I shared of everyone else’s faces that are taking it very seriously, and maybe even doing breathing techniques, and I’m just cheesing,” Gerardi joked.

Gerardi noted there were special callouts on this flight that were specific to the research being conducted, in addition to astronaut instructor Colin Bennett calling out time increments every 20 seconds. She said that the entire first portion of the flight following unstrapping from her seat is blacked out due to her focus on completing her experiments.

“I was aware that we were in space, but I was so paranoid about getting the science and doing right by my team, and doing right by so many people who had placed their faith in me that I was aware, but not present in that portion,” Gerardi said. “I was so solely focused on getting this payload safely unstowed, getting the data.”

In fact, on her planned timeline, 20 seconds were allocated for acclimating to microgravity. However, Gerardi immediately jumped into the science.

“I just started a free float, and in that first block, I already doubled, nearly tripled, the maximum amount of time we had ever gotten in parabolic flight of a free float,” Gerardi excitedly said.

While the results of the experiment have not yet been released, Gerardi said all data will be available to the public free of charge once it is published.

One thing she did note was that her experiment performed very differently than she’d expected.

Kellie Gerardi conducting her fluids experiment mid-flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

“I had never seen the experiment behave the way it did in space, even after seeing it hundreds of times on earth and in freefall, near freefall,” Gerardi recalled. “I had never seen it behave like it did. And so I was just so excited. Everything worked so perfectly. And then I stowed it and I was like mentally cheering myself on because I got it stowed.”

“So I looked like a professional. And I am a professional, but it was important to me that I looked like one too, because it was like, I was so conscious that everyone was watching, and this was the first time that Virgin had allowed someone to do what I was doing, and it was very important to me that I did right by that opportunity so that the next person has an even easier time convincing the team of what they want to do in space, free-floating-wise.”

Following the completion of her experiment, Gerardi remembered the cabin being extremely quiet, saying you could hear a pin drop with no motors or RCS thrusters firing during that portion of the flight.

Completing that task finally allowed her to look out the window at the Earth.

“I turned out my window and I really saw space and Earth for the first time and I, it took my breath away, like it really took my breath away,” Kellie noted with her eyes starting to water. “I watched myself on video, like the breathing and the awe, I was just in a stupor and it makes me kind of emotional to think about, but I also probably interrupted everyone’s apogee experience because twice Alan told me that, and I don’t really remember this, but I just was like, ‘oh my god, oh my god’, and it’s like everyone else had already had a lot of time to look out the window and I was just so focused and so this was my first time really, really experiencing it and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

Gerardi’s first view of the Earth while in flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

As she remembered looking out the window, away from her seat 2L, Gerardi waxed philosophically, with the tears still in her eyes and a large smile on her face.

“We’ve all seen, since childhood, so many pictures of the Earth and so many photos from much further away than I was, but it was the first time that I had experienced Earth as a planet,” Gerardi said happily. “I don’t quite know how to describe it, but I think I had a very academic understanding of Earth as a planet and being this cognitive dissonance of being both a part of it as a home but also away from it enough to experience it as a planet among other planets was an incredibly powerful and disorienting sensation and I just…that thin bright bright blue band of atmosphere it’s like the just fragility of it and nothing that I hadn’t seen before from images, but unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. And so it was just that and it was magical and overwhelming.”

Gerardi noted with this interview being done so close to the completion of her flight that she had yet to truly process what it meant. While describing the planet, Gerardi had large, bright eyes and a smile that kept growing with each added description, as she processed the memory in real-time.

She noted that there were two call-outs prior to re-entry, one of which was to get near to your seat, followed by the final call to strap in. Gerardi says she waited until the very last chance to reattach her five-point harness.

Following landing, Gerardi ran to hug her daughter, Delta V, named after the impulse per unit of spacecraft mass that is needed to perform a maneuver. The moment was shared on her Instagram account, which currently has over 346,000 followers, and on TikTok where she has an audience of more than 728,000 followers. She wants the trolls and naysayers to understand the significance of the reunion portion of flight.


I promised Delta I would come right back home to Earth…. Thank you @VirginGalactic 🥹💜

♬ Coming Home – Diddy – Dirty Money

“I shared this reunion video of me and my daughter and it was just so powerful. And of course you get the trolls who are like, you were gone for less than two hours, why are you so dramatic?” Gerardi laughed. “First of all, blocked. Second of all, you know, away for only a short period of time. Like, that wasn’t the message. That’s not why my daughter was running to me. That’s not why I was running to my daughter. We’ve been away from each other for many weeks while I worked overseas. The message was that this is something that fewer than 100 women have ever had the opportunity to do in history. And the limiter has always been access and not aptitude.”

“It’s like, I do not think I’m extraordinary or special in any way, and I look forward to broadening that horizon. But this was the fifth commercial flight ever for Virgin Galactic. So, one, to accomplish this from their side safely and to return me to my daughter on something that still has experimental stamped on that spacecraft and to watch my daughter watch me experience this thing that for her entire life, she’s always known from the day she was born that that was mommy’s dream. So it was all of that was layered in, in that reunion. And it had nothing to do with the time away. It had everything to do with the profundity of this moment in time and what it means.”

Kellie Gerardi with her husband and daughter shortly after returning to Spaceport America after Galactic 05. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

Readjusting to normal life following the trip had been tricky for the first few days post-flight. Gerardi noted that she had been crying every night before sleep, not knowing exactly why she was crying.

She also recalled two funny moments while out with family.

“Every time that I’m driving in the car with my husband and I turn to him and still grab his shoulder, I’m like, I left the freaking planet,” Gerardi said excitedly. “I literally keep having these moments where I have to almost grip something and tell the person next to me, I left Earth. I went to space.”

One person who was happy to tell people about Gerardi’s trip was her mother, which led to the second funny moment.

“We were in [a local supermarket],” Gerardi remembered with a big smile. “I was ordering sliced turkey from the deli and she’s like, ‘my daughter just got back from space’, this is like two days after we got back. I’m like, mom!”

Gerardi says she hopes to continue to share her experience and the idea that in this day and age, anything is possible.

“It’s not the era of, oh, you have to be the old stiff astronaut, everything’s going to be all that, right,” Gerardi asked. “I flew to space in the year of the Barbie movie, in the year of the [Taylor Swift] Eras tour, in the year of the [Beyoncé] Renaissance tour, okay? It’s like, we were going to bring it. And so, that was all top of mind for me.”

The author along with Kellie Gerardi following the interview for this article. (Credit: Sawyer Rosenstein for NSF)

Gerardi has published a personal book titled Not Necessarily Rocket Science: A Beginner’s Guide to Life in the Space Age, in addition to a children’s book series called Luna Muna. While reading the latter to a group of students at her daughter’s school, Gerardi came to a really unique realization.

“I look at Delta and I look at all of her classmates and they literally are just like, ‘Oh yeah I could go to space one day too, but I could also do a lot of other things’ and it’s like that’s so true,” Gerardi recalled. “My gender schema was very different than my daughter’s when I was growing up. I think that’s why I wore jewelry in space.”

“It’s why I had hot pink nails,” Kellie said showing them off, still sporting the bright color. “It’s why I wore friendship bracelets. Not that I did that intentionally to make a point, it’s more that I brought my full self to space and felt there was no part of me that even thought for a second I should tone it down. It’s toning it up. Get in losers we’re going to space!”

Onlookers view VSS Unity after it had completed the Galactic 05 flight. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

Besides hoping for more of her colleagues to get the chance to perform research in space, Gerardi hopes that type of willingness to be yourself in space will encourage even more people to pursue their dreams and achieve spaceflight: suborbital or orbital.

“I think it makes it more real and accessible and authentic to people to understand, like that’s why it’s the human in human spaceflight,” Gerardi said. “If we were just sending robots, yeah, for sure, we could talk only about the hardware, but we’re not. We’re sending human beings who have periods, who have children, who have lives and communities and families and emotions and all of that gets rolled into that experience. And that was mine.”

(Lead Image: From left to right, Kellie Gerardi, Dr. Alan Stern, and Ketty Maisonrouge following the Galactic 05 flight. Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

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