Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides discusses the next decade in space

George Whitesides has recently replaced Will Whitehorn as the CEO/President of Virgin Galactic. In an interview with Sander Olson, George Whitesides discusses suborbital spaceflight, orbital hotels, and the Government’s role in cultivating commercial spaceflight.

From the last answer George Whiteside believes we could see daily suborbital flights by 2020 and thousands of people will have flow to suborbit.

George Whitesides
Question: You recently moved from NASA to Virgin Galactic, to become President/CEO of Galactic. What caused the switch?

Answer: I had concluded my time with NASA, and I decided that Virgin Galactic was the most exciting space effort that I could join in the private sector. I continue to feel that way today.
Question: How is the test program for White Knight and Spaceship 2 proceeding?

Answer: The test phase is proceeding well – we are now entering the glide test portion of the program, and the preliminary results are encouraging. The next phase involves additional glide and feather testing, followed by further testing of the rocket engine, and then sending spacecraft into space.

Question: When is the current estimate as to when the first passengers will go on a suborbital flight?

Answer: We don’t release a specific date because we won’t launch until the entire system has been proven reliable and safe. But having said that, development is proceeding smoothly and we are getting closer every day.

Question: How much of a market exists for sub-orbital science packages? What would the per pound costs be to send payloads into space?

Answer: We believe that there is a substantial market for scientific payloads. There are now conferences on this very subject and the scientific community has expressed considerable interest. We anticipate that the per-pound cost will be significantly less than other services.

Question: Does Virgin Galactic have any plans to build an orbital rocket?

Answer: At this point, we are focused on suborbital spaceflight. We don’t currently have plans to build a rocket that could directly transport astronauts into orbit, but we are excited by the plans and capabilities of civilian companies who are competing in NASA’s CCDEV competition. We are currently supporting the bids of two of those companies, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Orbital Sciences Corporation.

Question: Once suborbital flights become commonplace, how long before the first orbital flights?

Answer: Several companies are already working on commercial orbital spaceflight, and they may be ready as soon as three years from now.

Question: How close to completion is Spaceport America? How many flights per month will it be able to handle, once it is fully operational?

Answer: Spaceport America is already operating some vertical launches, and we anticipate that our facilities will be completed next year. We anticipate that the spaceport will ultimately have a higher flight rate than any other space facility on earth. We will initially start out with weekly launches, ramping up to daily flights.

Question: The current cost is $200,000 per person. How confident is Virgin Galactic of maintaining that price?

Answer: We have had over 400 customers reserve seats for a total of over $55M in deposits. We are seeing high demand for suborbital flights at that price, so this price should remain at that level for some time. Some day, of course, the price will begin to come down.

Question: Now that NASA and the U.S. Government are supporting civilian space corporations, will the exploration and colonization of space begin in earnest?

Answer: I believe that the next few decades will see the exploration of space accelerate. Humans have not been beyond Low Earth Orbit for nearly forty years. Competing efforts will try myriad approaches to reducing the cost of space access, and the best ideas will win out. I’m confident that lower cost access to space will drive the acceleration of human spaceflight beyond Low Earth Orbit.
Question: What more could the Government be doing to encourage private space corporations?

Answer: The Government could help this industry – and thus American competitiveness and the high-tech jobs that go with it — by investing in high-value technological innovations that could substantially reduce the cost of access to space.

Question: Has Virgin Galactic thought about what comes after White Knight 2 and Spaceship 2?

Answer: We have thought about it, but we for now are focused on suborbital spaceflight. Once we have established safe, reliable suborbital operations, we’ll be looking closely at what comes next.

Question: Bigelow aerospace has plans for orbital habitats in space. Do you think such plans are feasible?

Answer: Absolutely. I think that the Bigelow concept is very exciting. Bigelow could have a private space station in orbit as soon as the next few years.

Question: How much progress do you foresee in space tourism during the next decade?
Answer: By the end of this decade, thousands of people will get to experience the view of Earth from space. Within less than a decade, we could see daily suborbital flights. It is an exciting time to be involved in space.

Related Reading

BA-2100 module and other Bigelow Aerospace news from Oct 2010

Bigelow Aerospace inflatable expansion could be placed on the International Space Station

Bigelow is in talks with NASA to add a module to the International space station

Bigelow Aerospace is expanding its staff by eleven times

Virgin Galactic is on track for commercial flights starting by March 2012

Virgin Galactic announced commercial flights for scientists

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