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Face to Face with George T. Whitesides: Reaching for the stars

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Editor’s note: George Whitesides shared his thoughts on human expansion into the solar system and beyond as the company nears its historic goal of flying tourists into space.

Sir Richard Branson, left, and Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. Branson and Whitesides joined Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham this month to announce that the company is ready to move the rest of its flight operations to New Mexico. (Courtesy of Virgin Galactic)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

George T. Whitesides caught the space bug early in life.

“I have this distinct memory as an 11-year-old of looking up at the night sky where I grew up outside of Boston. It was one of those cold nights where you can see the stars really clearly and I remember saying to myself, ‘I’m going to go up there someday.’ ”

That someday for Whitesides and ultimately thousands of other members of the human race appears to be on the near horizon. And when it happens he will have played a pivotal role.

The kid who gazed up at the night sky and whose mom saved his old drawings of Saturn V rockets is now CEO of Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Sir Richard Branson for the historic purpose of launching paying customers into space for a ride that will include a brief period of weightlessness and a breathtaking view of the planet before returning to Earth.

Branson, Whitesides, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and others were on hand earlier this month for the announcement that Virgin Galactic is moving the rest of its flight operations to Spaceport America – New Mexico’s futuristic, $220 million gamble begun 14 years ago in the administration of then-Gov. Bill Richardson.

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, previously served as chief of staff for NASA. (Courtesy of Virgin Galactic)

Whitesides said the time to move from California is right given successful test flights in December and February.

“This was a big day,” Whitesides said in an interview after the May 10 announcement. “I don’t know how the rest of the world will interpret today, but what I know is that it’s a huge day for our team. It’s a culmination. People came to Galactic to operate from New Mexico.”

As Branson put it: “New Mexico built a first-class spaceport. We’re now ready to bring you a first-class spaceline. Virgin Galactic is coming home.”

‘Hard stuff’

How soon Virgin Galactic’s mothership with passenger spacecraft VSS Unity attached launches from Spaceport America with a civilian payload – presumably including Branson himself – will depend on the work done by the two companies Whitesides oversees: Virgin Galactic and another subsidiary that builds the actual spaceships.

Whitesides, who is now focused on moving 100 families from California to New Mexico, hedges on when that first flight might take place, but he’s eager to be on board VSS Unity someday soon with his wife, Loretta Hidalgo-Whitesides. They bought tickets years ago.

“I’d love to fly as soon as possible, but we need to fit it into when the engineers say is the right time. We’re still working through that manifest stuff, but hopefully over the next year or so.”

But he also tamped down timeline expectations by talking about the challenges still ahead.

“We have a lot of work to do to get this right. This is hard stuff. Partly because of ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ people assume you can just do this stuff. But in fact, bringing airline type operations to space, which is what we’re trying to do in a limited way, is really hard.

“Nobody’s ever done it before. We’re designing our spaceship to operate for 10 years, and nobody’s ever done that before. Not just a few cycles or a dozen or hundreds, but for thousands. That’s really hard to do but we’re getting there and making great progress.”

Waiting list

With more than $1 billion in private money invested in Virgin Galactic and two related companies, Branson and other investors would no doubt like to see the world’s first space tourism launches sooner rather than later.

Whitesides said more than 600 people have signed up and paid deposits for the flights, which will cost $250,000 per passenger, even though the company hasn’t been selling tickets the past few years.

“Significantly more have expressed interest, but we wanted to take care of the existing customers,” Whitesides said. “And with these recent spaceflights we’ve had a lot of people getting in touch.”

The aspiring passenger manifest is global. Only about 35 percent of those who have signed up are from the United States, with nearly 60 countries in the customer base.

And that global interest suits Whitesides just fine.

“We view this as the first step in an interconnected planet,” he said, acknowledging spaceport deals (MOUs) inked in both Italy and Dubai. “Richard’s vision has always been to bring this to the planet eventually, but the headquarters is here. The ship is moving here and long term it will be great to operate from here to places around the planet.”

NASA chief of staff

Prior to joining Virgin Galactic in 2010, Whitesides served as chief of staff for NASA from 2008-2010 and upon departure was awarded the agency’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal.

Earlier in his career, he was executive director of the National Space Society, a public space education and advocacy group, and served as chairman of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

Whitesides, 45, is the first person to hold the CEO title at Virgin Galactic.

“With the investment from the Middle East and the requirement to build an operations, manufacturing and testing organization, then-Virgin President Will Whitehorn and Richard Branson wanted to recruit someone from the space industry. And I knew both of them because of the two tickets I had bought a few years earlier.”

Branson had found the man to run his company.

True Trekker

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that George Thomas Whitesides is a “Star Trek” fan. But not because of phasers and James T. Kirk’s action hero role.

“I love that it sets a positive vision of the future. And that’s what inspires me about space. It’s the best of what humanity can be: courage, exploration, teamwork, intelligence, engineering, science. ‘Star Trek’ was that vision.”

Laughing, he says wife Loretta (who has a master’s degree from Cal Tech with a particular interest in astrobiology, and who also has worked in the space industry) is a huge “Star Wars” fan.

George? Not so much.

” ‘Star Wars’ is full of war, so it’s not necessarily the best of humanity – but then again that’s in a galaxy long ago and far, far away. So that’s the past. Now, we have the present and ‘Star Trek’ is the future. So it’s positive progression in our space narrative.”

He acknowledges, of course, that there is plenty of audience-pleasing conflict in “Star Trek.”

“But the basic point of their ship,” he insists, “was exploration and then connection with other cultures.”

Kindred spirits

Despite his childhood love of space, Whitesides didn’t go directly down the science and engineering path. But his academic choice isn’t surprising when you hear him talk about humanity and its aspirations and challenges as they relate to space.

Whitesides, whose father is a Harvard chemistry professor, graduated with honors in public and international affairs from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and was selected as a Fulbright scholar. He earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge in England.

George and Loretta met – “at a UN space conference, as you might imagine.”

“One of the exciting things about space is there is this global community of people who are working on it,” he said. “You go talk to them and they’re from Britain, Mexico, or Thailand, but they share a spirit.”

Together George and Loretta founded “Yuri’s Night,” a celebration of space flight named after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was the first human to journey into space when his Vostok spacecraft completed one orbit of Earth on April 12, 1961.

“We wanted to get younger people excited about space,” Whitesides said. “The whole idea was to bring together art and music and space. It’s the anniversary of our first Space Shuttle launch and Yuri’s flight, so it celebrates both the first human to go into space and the first reusable spaceship. We thought it was a cool international holiday.”

Rough spots

Virgin Galactic may be near the brink of making history, but the journey has had rough spots – none rougher than the Oct. 31, 2014, catastrophic in-flight breakup of VSS Enterprise during a test flight in Mojave, Calif.

Pilot Peter Siebold was seriously injured and co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed when Alsbury prematurely engaged an air brake device used for atmospheric reentry. The NTSB also cited inadequate design safeguards among other causes.

Whitesides is somber and serious as he reflects on the tragedy.

“We have a very resilient team. I think you have to be an optimist in the space business and you have to have a certain mental toughness. We had people on our team who came over from NASA, who had experienced accidents.

“So we have a team that is really mentally tough and we relied on each other to get through that and relied on our work. We had a path forward and knew that our next task was to build a new spaceship. So having big goals in front of the team is crucial to getting through tough times.”

“When you have an issue in test flight you figure out exactly what happened and feed that lesson in. The reason air travel is so safe today is because there have been hundreds and thousands of test pilots who have made it into a form of transportation that is safe.”

Whitesides was on the flight line for the crucial tests in December and February that made it possible to move flight operations to New Mexico.

For the December flight, when Virgin Galactic flew to space for the first time, “I was probably more nervous than I’ve ever been. I knew it was a big one and that if everything went as planned we were going to get to space, but we hadn’t exactly told people that.”

For the February flight that produced stunning video used in the announcement, “we had demonstrated the system with the only difference that we were putting (Chief Flight Instructor Beth Moses) in the back. I knew she was super solid so I wasn’t too worried.”

Down time

Personable and businesslike, Whitesides is a counterpoint to the swashbuckling Branson, who Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., singled out at the announcement for his “rock star” outfit of faded jeans and leather jacket.

With his job and children ages 7 and 8, Whitesides says he doesn’t “have time to do much of anything.”

“I ride my mountain bike to get a little exercise but I mostly hang out with my kids and my wife. Mountain biking is sort of exploration with some good exercise, and I hear there is some amazing mountain biking in New Mexico.”

“And I love architecture,” which he said he’ll love in New Mexico.

Whitesides plans to split time between New Mexico with flight operations and California with spaceship manufacturing.

He has good things to say about doing business in New Mexico.

“It’s been overall great. In my remarks I tried to thank not just Gov. (Michelle) Lujan Grisham but everybody else I’ve worked with. We’ve worked with a bunch of folks from (the Gov. Susana) Martinez administration and back to Richardson. We had very good relations with the Martinez administration and they did good stuff.”

“I haven’t paid attention to all the political stuff inside the state but as a businessman interfacing with senior folks in the state they were helpful and so we’re grateful to them.”

The future

Whitesides thinks a lot about space and the breathtaking advance of technology we have experienced in our lifetimes – especially in miniaturization of satellites (he says something the size of the massive conference table in the governor’s executive offices where he sat for an interview could fit in a toaster) and reusable entry vehicles.

How about 20 years down the road?

“I think that tens of thousands of people will have been to space. We’re going to go from a time when very few people know an astronaut to a time when most people do, and that will be an interesting shift in planetary consciousness and awareness.”

Point-to-point global travel either hypersonic or near space will be “absolutely possible.”

“We can use technologies we are using on Spaceship 2 for Spaceship 3 and Spaceship 4 and improve on those. I think we’ll see a cycle orbit (ship) around Earth and moon so you can just jump on that for a week and take a cruise round the moon. From a physics perspective it’s pretty straightforward.”

What about militarization of space?

“It’s something we think a lot about. The United States doesn’t want space to be militarized and I agree with that. The challenge is that other nations know that the U.S. is very strong in space and the U.S. military uses its space capabilities to do what it does on the ground.

“I think treaties are interesting, but what I think we really need in the near term are rules of the road. Somebody said to me recently that the state of space right now is sort of like the 17th century on the seas before the normal rules of engagement had been set up. So how are you supposed to act as a responsible actor.”

Rules of the road, he said, would be a good start.

Frontier ethics

Capt. James T. Kirk introduced each episode of “Star Trek” with the words: “Space: The final frontier.”

Whitesides says the values we carry into that frontier are important as we grapple with militarization and other issues.

“I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and it’s a really hard problem. I don’t have the answer but will share one perspective: The ethics and traditions we insert into space could last for millennia. What we decide in the next 10 or 20 or 100 years about how we act in space will be the front-end messages we load into this continuous human expansion into the galaxy.

“So we need to be very conscious about what are we doing in this new environment because we have a deep responsibility as the generations that are starting that expansion to do it with care and hopefully learn some lessons from human history as we go forward.”

Whitesides takes that responsibility seriously, and as an optimist is more than ready to take that next step to the stars.

“Ultimately, what we think we are doing is one small step in this expansion of humanity into space. Into the universe. That’s a big vision that’s worthy of people’s professional efforts.”

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