Alumna Sirisha Bandla Discusses Future of Space Travel

Fresh off her trip to space last July, the aeronautical engineer and commercial astronaut was the guest of a George Talks Business event hosted by the GW School of Business.

February 3, 2022

Sirisha Bandla

GW School of Business Dean Anuj Mehrotra interviewed alumna Sirisha Bandla during a George Talks Business virtual event. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Nick Erickson

After a 30-minute ascent to the threshold of earth’s atmosphere, Sirisha Bandla, M.B.A. ’15, was finally amid the matte black she spent so much time gazing at off the roof of her childhood home in India. But it was the view back at the planet that houses everything she’s ever known that struck her the most.

Appearing virtually Wednesday afternoon as the second George Talks Business guest of the spring 2022 semester, Bandla described her experience as a mission specialist on Virgin Galactic’s Unity 22 flight to space last July. As she floated weightless about the spacecraft conducting research that day, she allowed herself to look out the window at the world beneath her.

There was a peace about Earth from 53.5 miles above, and the sight was subject for inspiration.

“It just puts into focus how incredibly lucky we are to have this planet,” Bandla said in a virtual conversation with GW School of Business Dean Anuj Mehrotra. “It doesn’t make you feel small, but it energizes you to come and make a difference and impact.”

That is one of the reasons why Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s vice president of government affairs and research operations, feels so strongly about commercial space aviation and making the other side of earth’s atmosphere more accessible.

Her own space aspirations were dashed at an early age when she discovered her eyesight would disqualify her from being a NASA astronaut. But when companies such as Blue Origin, SpaceX and her employer launched in the early 2000s, she realized she could be part of the next generation of spaceflight that blends commercial business and engineering with ambitions of opening space to scientists and even the public.

That’s also why she felt it would be important to get an M.B.A., noting that melding the Elliott School of International Affairs’ Space Policy Institute made GW a perfect fit. “You don’t find that anywhere else (but GW),” she said.  

Last November, a NASA tally keeping track of everybody who has ever been to space reached 600. Bandla said that Virgin Galactic currently has that many people signed up for future space travel as the company hopes to one day make such visits ordinary.

On that July mission, with billionaire and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson aboard, Bandla became the third-ever Indian-origin woman to go past the line of space. Because of Branson’s presence on the spaceflight, the mission gained notoriety around the world. When it was announced she would be on board, Bandla was overwhelmed by the amount of support she received, particularly from young women in India.

While borders often set limitations depending on what side a person falls on, they are invisible from space, and Bandla feels strongly that increasing representation—nearly 90% of space travelers have been men—will open the door for others who only thought they could dream about the stars instead of being among them.

“You're going to have communities where some of these folks are going to go back to and will be the first astronaut that kids meet,” said Bandla, who is now highly visible as someone to look up to. “And that in itself is just an incredible impact to make that really reduces the barrier of what people think is possible and what kids think is possible growing up.”

Accessibility is one thing. Affordability is another. Mehrotra asked Bandla about opponents who see these space voyages as a vacation for the super wealthy. The aforementioned 600 people who have reserved seats for future flights with Virgin Galactic paid $250,000 each, and that list is believed to have many celebrities on it.

In response, Bandla said that she believes continued innovation will decrease costs over time. A big part of her job is to work with agencies to build an environment that allows for both safety and growth in technology, pointing out partnerships with the FAA, NASA, Department of Defense and Congress.

“It was really starting from scratch looking at how do you create an environment that allows for safety, but also allows for growth and innovation?” said Bandla, who also urged the importance and potential for discovery of opening space up to researchers.  

While many questions are left to be both asked and answered about the future of space travel, Bandla believes it would be advantageous if others had the opportunity to see Earth and gain a newfound appreciation for it as she did.

“I truly believe that once [they] go to space, they see this incredible view, and they're going to come back and be very energized to impact change,” Bandla said. “And I am very energized and excited to be in a position to be able to help more and more people go up and see that view.”

George Talks Business is hosted by the GW School of Business, interviewing C-Suite executives, government leaders, entrepreneurs and alumni. The program runs each semester and is available on YouTube.