Q&A with George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic
All things considered, it’s not surprising that George Whitesides is president and CEO of Virgin Galactic. Earlier in his career, he served as vice president of marketing for private space-tourism company Zero Gravity before becoming executive director at the National Space Society—and then NASA’s chief of staff. And when Virgin Galactic was launched in 2004, Whitesides immediately contacted Virgin headquarters to tell them he wanted to buy a ticket—making him one of their first customers. Today, in addition to leading Virgin Galactic, he’s also a fellow at the U.K.’s Royal Aeronautical Society and sits on the board of Virgin Unite USA. And of course, he’s a licensed pilot, although he jokingly says “You wouldn’t want me piloting a spaceship!”
George Whitesides, president and CEO,
We’ll take his word for it, but at the helm of Virgin Galactic, Whitesides anticipates taking the company’s first commercial passengers into space as soon as a year from now. Calling from company headquarters in the Mojave, Whitesides kindly took time to discuss various high-flying subjects, including Virgin Galactic’s new partnership with XOJET.
XOJET: How did Virgin Galactic evolve?
GW: The key thing is that Richard (Branson) has always been inspired by aviation and aerospace and pushing the ball forward in space. I think the issue was that he never found the right investment to make until the X Prize flights in 2004. That’s when he really saw something and thought, “This is actually something we can take and progress and turn into a real business.”
XOJET: What are some of the biggest challenges in creating a commercial space venture?
GW: The biggest challenge is making sure that we build a vehicle that is as safe as can be and meets our customers’ expectations in terms of experience. So we’ve been working for several years now, building SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. We’ve essentially designed a system that is meant to be as fail-safe as possible. That is to say, we keep making great safety improvements that will make it the safest manned space ship ever built.
SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo
take flight over San Francisco
XOJET: When will the first flight happen?
GW: We’ve been flying both vehicles for several years now. We’ve had about a hundred test flights on the carrier aircraft and over 40 flights on the spaceship. Our first powered flight will be very soon, and I won’t give a specific date, but our hope is to get into space approximately by the end of this year. That will be a test flight, so the first commercial space flights should come at the end of this year or at the beginning of 2014. That’s what we’re targeting.
XOJET: How many space aircraft do you have today, and how will your fleet grow?
GW: We essentially have one pair of vehicles—the ones we’re flying now. Then we have the second pair, basically copies of the first pair, which are being produced now in Mojave. Our aspiration is to build five spaceships and a couple more carrier aircraft; we think that’s a good number with which to scale up the business.
XOJET: How would you characterize Virgin Galactic astronauts?
GW: In general, these are people who have had success in their life. A lot of them are entrepreneurs; a lot of them are pilots. We have folks of all different ages and lots of women, as well as young folks and elderly—it’s a pretty amazing range of people.
XOJET: What motivates them to want to go into space?
GW: The anticipation of doing something that very few people have done. They get to be part of a truly historic moment in space history, a time when if you buy a ticket, you can be one of the first people to go into space, which is amazing. Another thing is being part of that community of astronauts, which is a remarkable group of people. People find a lot of value in that, just on its own.
XOJET: What are some of the interesting events you’ve done for future astronauts?
GW: What we try to do is to enable our customers to meet each other and come together around bigger milestone events for our company. So, for example, one of the events we did was for the rollout for the spaceship. That was a terrific event with several governors and various other folks. We’ve also had trips to Richard’s properties including Necker Island and the South African game reserve, Ulusaba. Through it all, what we’re trying to do is share the magic of the overall experience and to build that community of folks, because it’s a remarkable group of people.
XOJET: Share your thoughts about the XOJET/ Virgin Galactic Concierge Access partnership.
GW: This is something we’re very excited about, and I think it’s going to be extremely important as we get closer to commercial operation. XOJET is a great partner; obviously a very similar group of people use both services. So it’s a win-win relationship for our customers, and whether they’re flying XOJET straight to our Spaceport America in New Mexico or to other destinations, I think it’s a relationship that will be increasingly beneficial as we lead up to their Virgin Galactic flight.