In Lieu of Spaceflight, Virgin Galactic Presents….

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Monday marked the second anniversary of Virgin Galactic’s most recent flight above 50 miles, the altitude the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) judges to be the boundary of space.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, I kept thinking Virgin Galactic will announce something on Monday. Some bit of news to distract people from 24 months without a spaceflight. Something to show forward progress ahead of what is likely to be yet another quarterly earnings call on Thursday soaked in red ink.

Well, sure enough, they released this on Monday:

From the video, I have no idea what a Disney imagineer does, or what this guy is going to be doing at Virgin Galactic. Fortunately, there was text accompanying the video that provided additional words:

With preparations underway for the first Future Astronauts to arrive at Spaceport America, Virgin Galactic has brought in Joe Rohde as a strategic advisor to help design and guide the overall experience journey for future astronauts, friends and family, and inspired fans alike.

Joe will become Virgin Galactic’s first Experience Architect, bringing more than 40 years’ experience from Walt Disney Imagineering where he led projects that transformed the image of Disney’s iconic experiences and attractions. Rohde is truly a transcendent creator whose design work leverages careful detailed composition to create authentic and remarkable experiences.  The work he is starting will stimulate curiosity, guide the imagination, and anchor the Virgin Galactic customer experience with purposefulness and meaning.

Joe recently visited New Mexico for the first time, and he shared with us some of his initial thoughts as he starts out at the beginning of his journey to develop the experience that thousands of aspiring astronauts and enthusiasts will come to enjoy in the future.

As part of his interview, Joe said, “I spent 40 years with Walt Disney Imagineering and that word, ‘Imagineering,’ refers to the fusion of imagination and engineering. This means I’ve come from a tradition where if you are imagining something, you are imagining that thing is going to be made real. That’s also been going on here at Virgin Galactic, and I’m delighted to be joining at this incredible moment in time when it is about to blossom into public awareness.”

Rohde continued, “This is one of the most profound things that can happen to you. To go beyond the reaches of the earth, to space, and look back down at it. It’s a spectacularly unique opportunity with huge potential for transformational change in a person…What Virgin Galactic is doing, in democratizing space travel, has reached a moment where it is about to enter history. It’s happening right here in New Mexico, and it’s very rare to be a person who gets to be in the place, at the time, that history begins.’’

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic said, “As soon as I joined Virgin Galactic, I knew there was one person we just had to work with to help shape the incredible experience we are developing – and that person was Joe Rohde. Joe has a methodology that is unique, inspired, and truly effective. His track record for keeping authenticity central to the design and creating deeply transformative experiences aligns perfectly with our mission. I couldn’t be more pleased to see Joe choose Virgin Galactic for his first encore!’’

Well, hopefully that cleared things up for all of you. If so, I would be most grateful if you could explain it to me in the comments section below. Because I’m still at a bit of a loss here.

As near as I can tell, the experience is going to be the actual spaceflight that Virgin Galactic has been promising people for the past 16.5 years but has yet to deliver on. Sixty years after the first spaceflight, most people don’t need a lot of help imagining it. Anyone who does can pull up videos on YouTube of Richard Branson promising how awesome it will be once flights begin in 12 or 16 or 18 months. (Branson’s estimates over the years varied, but the outcomes depressingly similar. Flights were supposed to have begun in 2007.)

Given that the last powered flight in December suffered an aborted engine ignition, and the one before in February 2019 that nearly destroyed the ship, it seems Virgin Galactic needs better engineering, not more imagineering.

Hopefully, Virgin’s management will address all of that in the earnings call. And Wall Street’s stock price obsessed analysts will ask some probing follow-up questions. Maybe. I will tune in and report back so you don’t have to.