BREAKING NEWS: Jim Tighe to Depart Scaled Composites — UPDATED

SpaceShipTwo on a glide flight with WhiteKnightTwo above it. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
SpaceShipTwo on a glide flight with WhiteKnightTwo above it. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Updated with statement from Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The chief aerodynamicist credited with designing SpaceShipTwo is departing the program on the eve of a crucial series of flight tests designed that Virgin Galactic hopes will lead to the start of commercial suborbital space tourism operations early next year.

Multiple sources have confirmed that Jim Tighe announced on Thursday that he would be leaving his position as chief aerodynamicist at Scaled Composites in two weeks for a job at an unnamed aerospace company. It is not clear what prompted the move.

Update: Reports indicate Tighe will be working for an aviation start-up based in Silicon Valley.

Tighe has been at the very center of the development of SpaceShipTwo, which Scaled Composites has built and is testing for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company.  Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan has credited Tighe with having designed the suborbital spacecraft.

Tighe also played a central role in the design, development and testing of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne predecessor, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004 as the first private vehicle to reach space twice in two weeks.

“He is the most talented aerodynamicist that I’ve met in my career,” Rutan is quoted as saying in the book, Realizing Tomorrow. “I sometimes think what I could have accomplished in my career if I had been as smart as him at that age.”

One source said Tighe knows more about SpaceShipTwo, its systems, performance and flaws than even the pilots that fly it. The announcement of his departure has left many people in shock and disbelief, sources said.

There is also concern about continuing the flight test program without Tighe’s involvement.  SpaceShipTwo is set to begin a series of powered flight tests this fall after a long gap during which engineers made modifications to accommodate a new type of hybrid rocket motor.

The flight tests are expected to lead to SpaceShipTwo’s first commercial powered flight into space next year. Earlier this week, Branson said that he and his son, Sam, are hoping to take the first commercial flight aboard the vehicle from Spaceport America in February or March 2015.

Update, 6:01 p.m. PDT, 09/12/14: Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides emails the following statement in response to questions from Parabolic Arc:

“Ultimately, we hired Burt and his team at Scaled to design the vehicle, and so I think we consider Jim’s contributions part of a team effort.  But there is no doubt that Jim made great contributions to the design of the spaceship.  He is also a good friend.

“Given that design of the vehicle airframe has been largely complete for a while, Jim has spent increasingly less time on the program over the past couple of years.  Jim has also helpfully agreed to periodically come back over the course of the fall to help us conclude the test flight program.  So his departure will not effect the success of the project.

“In the space business, as in life, it is natural for people to move on periodically.  We wish Jim the very best with his next adventure.”