Spaceport voyage inspires University of Leicester’s ‘galactic scholars’

Students from the Galactic Unite Scholarship programme, based at the University of Leicester, recently took part in a four-day immersive experience at Spaceport, New Mexico – just a week ahead of Virgin Galactic’s first ever commercial spaceflight.

Galactic Unite is Virgin Galactic’s outreach initiative, born out of a unique collaboration between the Future Astronaut community and Virgin Unite. Galactic Unite seeks to drive positive change for young people by channelling collective energy and resources. It works to ensure that future generations are equipped to apply a planetary perspective to Earth’s greatest challenges.

The six students from Leicester embarked on a journey of learning, play, and adventure alongside the Galactic Unite team and Paul Williams, the founder of the University’s Galactic Unite Scholarship. 

Their schedule included thrilling flights in the mission simulator led by Virgin Galactic’s Chief Pilot Dave Mackay, a personal tour of the facilities including the mission operations facility and the hangar, the creation of personal mission statements, and the chance to meet members of the Virgin Galactic community.

The Galactic Unite Scholarship was founded by Paul and Justine Williams, funded by a generous donation to the University. Paul is a senior technologist at Bloomberg, working with real-time data for the world’s financial markets.

The Scholarship provides both financial support and mentorship with a member of the Virgin Galactic Team to ten Physics students at the University of Leicester. It is awarded to those physics students who demonstrate that they will benefit most from the careers guidance, insights into the space industry and the world of rocket science, and international opportunities that the programme provides.

One of those students is Jenni Jones, who will be continuing to study for an MSc in Space Exploration Systems at the University of Leicester. She was drawn to the scheme thanks to its focus on helping the applicants’ personal situations and struggles, and found that it boosted her confidence in herself and her academic career, as well as speaking to others about her dyslexia.

Of the trip, Jenni said: “I can’t describe it, the whole building seemed as if it was in the future, set entirely in a desert. But once we got inside we were welcomed with open arms, with a personal guided tour around their facilities and simulators just before they prepared for their first commercial space flight, and stopped around to chat and engage with us despite this busy time.”

Paul said: “The Galactic Unite scholarship based at the University of Leicester is one of the projects I am most proud of during my 35 years in tech. Over the last three years, we have been getting to know these incredible students and continuing to build a wonderful relationship between us, the education outreach community at Virgin Galactic, and the mentors from Virgin Galactic and the Future Astronaut community.

“Everyone gave the scholars the most gracious and kind engagement, happy to share their perspective and passion for this incredible project. To see such single-minded dedication, excellence, teamwork, and love for the work at Virgin Galactic definitely gave the students something to ponder as they carry on their young adult lives in education and industry.”

Professor Suzie Imber from the University of Leicester, who co-founded the scholarship, said: “I am delighted that my students had this incredible opportunity, and hugely thankful for the generosity of the whole Galactic team in making our visit so special. 

“The scholarships were awarded to those who most needed support and could demonstrate their intention to give back to the wider community, and it was a great pleasure to be able to facilitate this opportunity for such deserving students. Our collaboration with Galactic, and with Paul, will continue into the future, with new initiatives to support our students and give them unique opportunities to explore their passion for space.”  

To date, Galactic Unite scholarships have awarded more than $1.5M to over 150 students worldwide, in celebration of Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM). This has been made possible thanks to the incredible support from people like Paul Williams, the founder of the Galactic Unite Scholarship at the University of Leicester.

Scholars and mentors alike marvelled at how close Virgin Galactic was to achieving its mission of broadening access to space to people around the world – everyone was delighted to see VSS Unity and VMS Eve just a few days ahead of that incredible milestone.

“It was truly a magical and unforgettable time for all involved, and I'm certain that the memories created will last a lifetime,” said Maja Muric, director of Galactic Unite.