Exclusive interview: Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides

Ten years ago, no one would have imagined space ranger Buzz Lightyear’s activities becoming a reality, but late last year Virgin Galactic’s supersonic, rocket-powered spaceplane, VSS Unity, flew into space. 

“It’s a wonderful, liberating experience,” says George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, referring to an earlier zero gravity experience. “You have spent your whole life at 1G and to be freed from that is incredible; I found learning how to move in a new environment turned on bits of my brain I probably hadn’t used since I was a toddler.”

Such experiences, of course, don’t come cheap with the price tag at around US$250,000 per trip. From take-off to the return landing will take 90 minutes, and passengers are likely to be at zero gravity for just five minutes. “There will be a section of the flight when passengers will be able to unbuckle their seatbelts and float around, and people can look down on to planet Earth and out into space,” he adds.

But behind the scenes of space tourism are wider implications for the travel industry, according to Whitesides. “This technology could form the basis of a very high-speed intercontinental transportation system,” he says, “allowing us to break through the plateau that jet travel has been stuck on for a long time. We can move to hypersonic or even near-orbital velocities, which would enable us to traverse continents and oceans in a matter of an hour or two rather than 10 or 15 hours.”

Looking up
When reported drone sightings can close airspace for days, most people working in the UK business travel industry will be forgiven for not having space travel front of mind. But for Whitesides, stargazing is something he’s been doing since his early years. “I’ve wanted to go into space since childhood,” he reminisces, “and as I get older I’m increasingly inspired by the relationship between space and Earth. The more you learn about space, the more you understand how special Earth is as a planet and we need to be good stewards of our home spaceship because others are not easily accessible.” 

One of the goals of Richard Branson – founder of Virgin Galactic – is to set up space operations around the world and to that end, Whitesides travelled to southern Italy last autumn to visit Taranto, the airport the Italian Space Agency has designated the country’s first spaceport. Talks are ongoing but, he says, it’s an exciting prospect, as is Galactic’s planned move to Spaceport America in New Mexico. 

All this activity is critical for Galactic; with the Chinese growing seeds on the Moon and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos developing spacecraft to fly to Mars and the Moon respectively, a new space race has emerged. “Each of those companies and nations is doing something different, but there is an exciting sense that there are areas that overlap, which makes us all want to get up in the morning and go as fast as possible; there’s a little bit of a space race – but it’s a friendly competition.”

In order to stay in the race, it’s important to inspire the next generation of astronauts. Whitesides says young people, from schoolchildren to university students, should be given the opportunity to “work on space hardware and software. That’s where the real opportunity is. It’s not an exaggeration to say that a high school can send a satellite into space or a college can create a payload that could fly with our or other vehicles into space multiple times. It is a golden age of space access and it’s going to get better.”

Inspiration also comes in the form of role models; however, Whitesides brushes aside his own work despite a raft of volunteer roles at organisations including the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Caltech’s Space Innovation Council and the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies. “Our pilots are the role models; those guys are the real heroes,” he says. “Everyone in this company knows we have the honour of working on a truly historic programme and have the good fortune to be working for someone like Richard. We have the opportunity to do something historic together,” he says.

For Whitesides, role models are also those who innovate to improve the world, including chairman of the X Prize Foundation Peter Diamandis, film director Jim Cameron and his own great-grandfather James Henry Breasted. “He was the first Egyptologist in the US and founded the first Institute of Archaeology there.”

Down to earth
Like his great-grandfather, Whitesides is similarly keen to explore closer to home. “We took our children to Patagonia, where I’d never been before. It’s incredible to be able to explore Torres del Paine and the surrounding areas, and to be overwhelmed by this huge part of earth that still has relatively small human presence,” he says.

These are places to relax, which can be a challenge for today’s modern executive, he adds. “I work for a company that has offices in Europe, on the east and west coasts of the US, and has customers all over the planet, so I’m subject to the disease of so many of us: it’s hard to turn off the phone. That was part of the theory behind going to Patagonia, where there might be less connectivity. And playing with my kids is a great way to focus on things that are not related to the company, I’m grateful for them.”

It’s somehow reassuring that Whitesides – a modern-day space ranger aiming for infinity and beyond – has to unplug, tune into nature and play, once in a while.

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