George Whitesides: Virgin Galactic Making Good Progress

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides gave two talks at NASA Ames this morning — the first at the NewSpace 2011 Conference and another for the students at the Singularity University.

Whitesides’ 30-minute address to the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual gathering followed a familiar script, with updates on testing (going great), sales (growing steadily), the Spaceship Company (hiring rapidly), and the engine development (making progress). He used up most of his time making the address, and then took three questions before time ran out.

The Singularity University presentation seems to have been more freewheeling and, according to one person who saw both, much better than his NewSpace address. Whitesides touches upon of what it’s like to work for Richard Branson (great), the competition (we like it), and ITAR (bad, very very bad).

My notes on the NewSpace presentation follow. I’ve also included a collection of Tweets on Whitesides’ Singularity University session.


Program and Sales Update

  • More than 440 customers and $58 million in deposits, representing $88 million in ticket sales
  • WK2 – 68 flights — SS2 27 flights, 15 glide and 2 feather flights
  • Flight envelope for WK2 is almost entirely explored
  • Spaceport America in New Mexico is coming along
  • Will unveil new name for Terminal Hangar Facility later this year
  • Virgin Galactic is anchor tenant at Spaceport America, but Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other companies are using the desert facility

The Elephant (in the Room)

  • SpaceShipTwo engine: It’s hard. Sierra Nevada (prime contractor) has had a scaleup hybrid engine.
  • Good progress over the summer.
  • We expect it will be flying in space next year
  • Referred to video that SNC’s Mark Sirangelo showed yesterday (which  believe was a smaller version for designed for on-orbit maneuvering by Dream Chaser shuttle)

A Hiring Binge in the Desert

  • Just built a hangar for The Spaceship Company (TSC) where they’re going to build the new spaceships.
  • Company growing at a rapid rate
  • 30 job openings on TSC website. Headline is We’re hiring
  • Great environment — young people plus older ones. get in on ground floor to build first of many many vehicles
  • Ken Sunshine hired as new CFO, went through a pilot selection process
  • 500 pilots applied, 3 selected
  • Some exciting announcements coming up on pilot selection.
  • “We’ve got some real studs” in the new pilot group — the “right stuff for our age”
  • Positioning ourselves for a lot of growth with a very high rate of operation requiring multiple vehicle pairs.

General Policy Remarks

  • If we pour all our money into another apollo program, then little money for tech innovation to lower space costs
  • Goal of policy changes are really focused on going forward in space more affordably and sustainably
  • so disappointed in the discussion over the innovation piece of NASA’s budget. Crucial part of Obama’s two part strategy of commercial crew and tech innovation
  • without new tech, we will be spending almost all the money on certain types of ops.


Via Lucy Rogers (DrLucyRogers)

  • @gtwhitesides says he will be taking our deposits for a flight as we are not “normal” students !
  • When a student, wondered abt most important thing I could do with my life. I chose to push the bar fwd w/ space
  • Sorry but this talk by @gtwhitesides is better than his one earlier at #Newspace2011 – #singularityu rocks!
  • Over 400 future astronauts have bought tickets – most male, but some great females in the group too
  • Number of people who’ve been to space in last 50 years: 500. @Virgin_Galactic will get that many up in 1st year.
  • “We are stuck in the top speeds – we need to break out. Sub orbital won’t do it, but it may help drive the way”
  • Loads of q’s from the floor here at #SingularityU for @gtwhitesides
  • Human speed is stuck at ~ 1000 miles per hour, we can bring order of magnitude change w/ suborbital space tourism
  • “ITAR has been a huge problem for us, it’s something we can handle, but imposes a huge cost”
  • “We have considered raising the price, due to supply and demand”
  • “@richardbranson is not a micromanager – he has a talent for getting people excited abt working for him”
  • Q: Are you planning to go to outerspace? A: Sub is great place to start, orbital more exp, we need reusable
  • If you solve orbital problem, you solve pt to pt prob, apply same techs
  • RT @justine_lam: @gtwhitesides Most interesting next challenge in research is the issue of heat energy in vehicles
  • Is sub orb tourism competitive or is there good camaraderie? A: it’s both. @Virgin_Galactic welcomes competition
  • What is limiting you to such short flights? A: Re-entry
  • 8, 9 10 G’s is not what most people would want to go through, we max out at 6 G’s for a short time
  • It took 200k yrs to settle across the planet – there’s no reason we can’t do that / new techs in same time scale