Planetary scientist Dr. Alan Stern has been chosen to be the first to conduct NASA-funded science experiments while flying aboard a commercial spacecraft. In this interview Dr. Stern discusses the experiments he will perform aboard Virgin Galactic’s “SpaceShipTwo” on a suborbital mission from the Spaceport America launch site in New Mexico. He also discusses software upgrades coming to the New Horizons spacecraft in 2021, and as a proponent of Pluto, explains why it should be considered the ninth planet in our solar system.
About Dr. Alan Stern
Dr. Alan Stern is a planetary scientist, space program executive, aerospace consultant, author, and avid public speaker. Since 2001 he has led NASA’s $880M New Horizons mission that successfully explored the Pluto system and is now exploring the Kuiper Belt—the farthest exploration in the history of humankind. In 2018, he was named by the Administration to a six yearlong term to the U.S. National Science Board. In both 2007 and 2016, he was named to the Time 100 list. In 2020, NASA selected Dr. Stern to fly as an experimenter on a commercial suborbital spaceflight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2.
Since 2009, Dr. Stern has been an Associate Vice President and Special Assistant to the President at the Southwest Research Institute. Additionally, from 2008-2012 he served on the board of directors of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education, and as the Chief Scientist and Mission Architect for Moon Express from 2010-2013. From 2011-2013 he served as the Director of the Florida Space Institute. Dr. Stern serves as the Chief Science Officer of World View, a near-space ballooning company that he is co-founder of. In 2016 and again in 2017 he was elected to be the Board Chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Dr. Stern is also on the advisory board of Lowell Observatory.
Dr. Stern also maintains his own aerospace consulting practice. His current and former consulting clients include Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Naveen Jain’s Moon Express Google Lunar X-Prize team, Ball Aerospace, Paragon Space Development Corporation, the NASTAR Center, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, and the Johns Hopkins University.
His career has taken him to numerous astronomical observatories, to the South Pole, and to the upper atmosphere aboard various high performance NASA aircraft including F/A-18 Hornets, F-104 Starfighters, KC-135 Zero-G, and WB-57 Canberras. He has been involved as a researcher in 29 suborbital, orbital, and planetary space missions, including 14 for which he was a principle investigator; and he has led the development of 8 scientific instruments for NASA space missions. In 1995, he was selected as a Space Shuttle Mission Specialist finalist, and in 1996 he was a candidate Space Shuttle Payload Specialist. In 2010, he became a suborbital payload specialist trainee, and is expected to fly several suborbital space missions aboard Virgin Galactic vehicles in 2019-2020.
Southwest Research Institute is a premier independent, nonprofit research and development organization using multidisciplinary services to provide solutions to some of the world’s most challenging scientific and engineering problems. Headquartered in San Antonio, Texas, our client-focused, client-funded organization occupies more than 1,500 acres, providing more than 2.3 million square feet of laboratories, test facilities, workshops, and offices for approximately 3,000 employees who perform contract work for government and industry clients.
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