Virgin Galactic: ready for lift-off

Virgin Galactic boss George Whitesides talks about his ambitious plan to put the first space tourists into orbit by the end of this year.
Virgin Galactic: ready for lift-off
By Beatrice Thomas
Sat 31 May 2014 10:55 AM

He is the man charged with making British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s long-held dream of commercial space flight a reality.

But, long before his tenure as CEO and president of Virgin Galactic began in 2010, George T. Whitesides was already thinking out of this world.

“I’ve been captured by it since I was a little kid,” he tells Arabian Business. “What inspires me about space is that it represents the best of humanity — exploration, courage, discovery, co-operation, adventure. Today there are so many exciting discoveries in space — from planets around other stars, to rovers on Mars, to the exciting developments in commercial spaceflight. Most of all I think opening the experience of spaceflight to people around the world will have a profound impact on humanity.”

Recruited to Virgin Galactic from NASA, where he oversaw its 18,000 employees as chief of staff for two years, the self-proclaimed space enthusiast’s association with the company he now leads started in 2005 when he and his wife, Loretta, signed on as one of its earlier customers in what was reportedly their planned honeymoon in space.

“When they began looking for a CEO in 2010, they reached out to me, and I spoke with Richard before formally coming onboard,” the 40-year-old says.

Prior to that, Whitesides’ expansive career in space policy, business and regulation dates back to an executive internship at Orbital Sciences Corporation and also include roles as a member of the NASA Presidential Transition Team for the incoming Obama administration, executive director at the National Space Society and chairman of the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee’s Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group.

The son of renowned Harvard chemistry professor George M. Whitesides, the Princeton and Cambridge graduate and former Fulbright Scholar has also been vice president for marketing of private space tourism company Zero Gravity Corporation, and director of marketing at space experience company Blastoff Corporation. With his wife he has co-founded Yuri’s Night, an annual global celebration of space that has been celebrated in more than 50 countries and also co-founded Permission to Dream, a global space education programme that donates telescopes to underprivileged children.

However, it’s at Zero Gravity and Blastoff Corporation where he first cut his teeth in the field of commercial spaceflight — a business that he still believes is only at the tip of the iceberg.

“The exciting thing about sub-orbital spaceflight is it’s fundamentally a new market and we think that it’s ultimately a multi-billion-dollar market based on the business analysis work we’ve done,” he says in earlier comments on the sidelines of the recent Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi.

“Satellite services is a tremendously bigger number — that’s sort of tens of billions of dollars, like you look at the capitalisation of DirecTV in the United States and that’s a $40bn company. For me, of course… I think the biggest market is the transportation market, which dwarfs other markets, but I think that will be a few years down the road.”

Not surprisingly, Virgin Galactic is making plans around all three — and since Abu Dhabi-backed Aabar Investments has a 37.8 percent stake in the company, with Branson’s Virgin Group the majority shareholder, so, too, is the UAE.

The most high-profile project, Virgin Galactic’s goal of operating the first commercial spaceflight is expected to be realised this year with the highly-anticipated launch of eight-seater vehicle SpaceShipTwo, carrying Branson and his two children onboard for the maiden flight. Its first flight missions in 2004 were on SpaceShipOne, which now sits in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC as the first private aircraft to take a person into space.

While Branson has set several dates that have come and gone for the first launch, Whitesides, who provides a cautious balance to the often-colourful overtures of his more outspoken boss, will say only that it is aiming for “towards the end of this year”.

“What we try to do, what I try to do, is to just let the test programme proceed at its own pace, so we have a specific date, but I think the point is that it will be sort of towards the end of the year,” he says.

The company marked its first test flight last year when carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port and reached an altitude of about 46,000 feet (14km), where SpaceShipTwo was released.

Two pilots then ignited the ship’s rocket engine and climbed another 10,000 feet (3km), reaching Mach 1.2 in the process. Additional test flights are planned before the spaceship will fly even faster, eventually reaching altitudes that exceed 62 miles (100km). “It was stunning,” Branson told Reuters at the time. “You could see it very, very clearly. Putting the rocket and the spaceship together and seeing it perform safely, it was a critical day.”

There is no doubt the space endeavour is still capturing the world’s imagination. So far, about 700 people have signed on for a Virgin Galactic spaceflight at a cost of $250,000 a ticket, including a host of celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett and Justin Bieber. In typical Branson-marketing style, a stunt involving singer Lady Gaga performing in space is also reportedly planned for next year to coincide with the music festival being staged by Virgin.

Through Aabar, which first bought a 31.8 percent stake in Virgin Galactic in 2009 for $300m, about the same amount Branson has admitted to pumping into the venture, an Emirati will win the chance to join what Whitesides describes as a “good number” of Middle East passengers to have signed up.

Whitesides, who has a private pilot’s licence and is a certified flight coach, will travel also, confirming he will take one of the latter test flights. “Sir Richard flying on the first commercial flight has been a great sign to our customers that we’re not going to let him fly until we think it’s ready,” he explains. “Correspondingly, I think I should fly soon before Richard just to make sure that he knows that I fully believe in the technology.”

He says Virgin Galactic’s second field of investment, satellite services, is also a key focus and one that may ultimately tie in with long-term plans for a second spaceport in Abu Dhabi in addition to its main launch hub, Space Port America in New Mexico.

The company is developing a small satellite launch vehicle, Launcher One, to service a market needing small orbital payloads. Like SpaceShipTwo, he says, the idea is part of Virgin Galactic’s wider vision to make space access more affordable and using less expensive technologies.

“In terms of the issue of satellite launch, I think what I would say is the market for large satellites is probably well serviced right now between SpaceX, Arianespace, the Russians, Indians, etc,” he says.

“The market for small satellites, by which I would define as sort of as big as a bread box, potentially going as small as a 1U CubeSat, all the way to sort of the size of a fridge is less well-serviced; there really aren’t any affordable launchers in that price range.

“You can get things that cost $50m, but for something this big who’s going to pay $50m?  So, we really need to get that price under $10m, potentially even lower and I think if we do that then the market will follow.”

Whitesides leaves the door open to an Abu Dhabi launch facility — an idea he first flagged in 2012 — but says the company is “very focused” on starting commercial spaceflight operations in the US.

“That, ultimately, as we’ve said in the past, is dependent on regulators in the US and the Emirates as well as stakeholders. But, I do think that prospect is fundamentally exciting both for the future of technology and also science education in this country,” he says, adding that while the US is keen to export the system, it’s a new area for US regulators to consider, meaning conversations need to be measured and step by step.

With the opportunities that sub-orbital space flight presents all over the world — “the view is different everywhere you go” — Whitesides says it is “very interesting” that the global aerospace industry has not yet really started to develop point-to-point travel, which he describes as the iceberg to the “tip” of spaceflight passengers.

Like Branson, he is enthusiastic about the idea of regular space flight services that can deliver passengers from London to Australia in a couple of hours and also acknowledges that Branson’s idea of the first hotel in space would be “very exciting”. However, unlike Branson, Whitesides is conservative on the timeframes, offering 2030 as a possible date for “establishing at least prototypes for high-speed, point-to-point travel”, and “within ten years” as to when the first significant semblance of overnight space tourism could be realised. Likewise, travel to Mars, while certain “someday” will come after “a lot of work” in lowering the cost of access to space, he says.

“Already in 2015 there will be a private module (by Bigelow Aerospace Company) on the international space station and this is something that I was somewhat involved in when I was at NASA,” he says.

“But, if they can demonstrate that that’s safe and reliable then I think the next step would be to create a private, free-standing module, potentially flying in formation with the international space station, and I think that there’s absolutely no doubt that that could be done by 2020. Bigelow Aerospace would probably be the favoured one to do it and there may be things that we and others work with them on.

“Within ten years you could see a free floater that’s flying in formation with the Space Station and you could almost have like a little community in lower Earth orbit of free floating habitats.”

Whitesides says realistically the cost will be a factor in making either concept work. “Those products will obviously be more expensive than a first-class ticket, but what we need is for them to be within sort of throwing distance of a first-class ticket or a private jet,” he says. “Is it going to happen in a year or two? No. It’s going to take many years to sort of set up, first a vehicle and then a network of infrastructure. The interesting thing is that space ports, first probably in the United States and then internationally, will serve the backbone of high-speed transport.”

With Aabar onboard and a major factor in Virgin Galactic’s viability to date, Whitesides says conversations over a possible increase in its stake remain private, but stresses that “we feel very lucky to have Aabar and His Highness Sheikh Mansour, as being involved in our company”.

“We are very proud of our Emirati connections and continue to benefit from Aabar Investments’ ownership. Delivering on our ambitious goals requires world scale partners and Aabar Investments was a natural collaborator given its financial strength and vision.”

Whitesides adds that he has also had “good conversations with Mubadala and other stakeholders in the UAE” about the country’s possible future role in building more Virgin Galactic spacecraft, though he declines to give more detail.

“We’re now building the second set of vehicles, which is exciting; we have the next spaceship about 40 percent done now, so we’re working our way through that and we’ll be able to use that for augmenting our capacity,” he says.

As for turning a profit, Whitesides still stands by his previous target in 2012 of increasing revenue to around $500m a year in a few years. Turning a profit will be a couple of years later, he estimates. “We have almost $150m of service that is pre-booked essentially and we think that the growth curve of that will go up significantly once we’ve started commercial operations,” he says. “It’ll take a few years to get up to that level, but I do think that that’s a good target for us to look at.”

However, the pressure doesn’t seem to be too great for Whitesides, despite Branson declaring in February that “if myself and my family are not in space by the end of the year, I would be very, very worried”.

“We are all eager to begin commercial service, but I know that ultimately Richard and our investors all share a commitment to safety,” Whitesides says in response. “We’ll begin our service when we’re ready to do so.”

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