Two AAE alumnae part of crew on next Virgin Galactic flight to space
Purdue University will be adding to its “Cradle of Astronauts.”
AAE alumna Sirisha Bandla (BSAAE ’11) is one of four mission specialists selected for Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed flight test, positioning her to become only the second commercial astronaut among the Cradle.
The first? She’ll be making Flight No. 2 soon.
Beth Moses (BSAAE, MSAAE), who became the first female commercial astronaut on Virgin Galactic’s flight test in February 2019, is joining Bandla and mission specialists Colin Bennett and Sir Richard Branson in the cabin for the flight. The pilots for VSS Unity are Dave Mackay and Michael Masucci, the company announced July 1.
Moses, the company’s Chief Astronaut Instructor, will serve as cabin lead and test director in space, overseeing the safe and efficient execution of the test flight objectives, the release said.
Bandla will be evaluating the human-tended research experience, using an experiment from the University of Florida. Bandla started in her role as the Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations at Virgin Galactic in January 2021.
"I am so incredibly honored to be a part of the amazing crew of #Unity22," Bandla tweeted on July 2.
The flight window for the next rocket-powered flight test of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Unity opens July 11. The “Unity 22” mission will be the 22nd flight test for VSS Unity and the fourth crewed spaceflight, the release said. It’s the first to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists in the cabin. Virgin Galactic will share a global livestream of the spaceflight via its website and simulcast on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. The feed is expected to begin at 9 a.m. Eastern on the day of the flight.
Moses (OAE ’18) has long credited her AAE education for catapulting her into the space industry. Counting her Co-Op time while at Purdue, Moses was with NASA for 24 years, including as Space Station EVA System Manager. She joined Virgin Galactic in 2013, where she trains professional staff to evaluate the cabin, just like she did on that 2019 suborbital flight.
Few knew in advance of that 2019 flight that Moses was on the crew. But she made it a priority to honor Purdue’s space history on that flight, flying two pennants to space. She gifted one to AAE.
“I don’t think I would have been on that ship if Purdue hadn’t been in my background,” she said in 2019 when she was back on campus after the flight.
That second test flight in 2019 climbed to a height of nearly 56 miles, which qualified Moses and the two pilots for Commercial Astronaut Wings from the Federal Aviation Administration. That designation meant Moses became Purdue’s 25th astronaut in the “Cradle.”
She was wowed even at the thought.
“I realized, ‘I’m not only an astronaut, I’m a Purdue astronaut.’ That means a lot. Those were my heroes. Those were my colleagues at NASA. I learned from that chain of people,” she said in 2019.
Bandla soon will join that exclusive group.
And it'll be a culmination of a lifelong dream. One seemingly that had been dashed.
Bandla grew up in Houston, nearby NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and always wanted to become an astronaut. But poor eyesight meant she couldn’t meet the requirements to become a pilot or an astronaut, derailing her high-school plan to go the Air Force-to-NASA route, she said.
Now, with Virgin Galactic, Bandla's aspirations have been renewed.
"When I first heard I was getting this opportunity, I was speechless," Bandla said in a video released by Virgin Galactic on July 5.
Another Boilermaker soon will be in space.
“I’ve had fond memories of my time at Purdue,” Bandla said in 2021, “being part of a group of passionate individuals. … Purdue built a strong foundation of technical and programmatic principles we all carried into our successful careers.
“I’m so proud to be a Boilermaker.”