George Whitesides '96 is the CEO of Virgin Galactic, which is developing commercial spacecraft aimed at providing the public with flights into suborbital space, starting as early as 2018. Whitesides sat down with the 'Prince' to talk about his Princeton experience, his foray into the aerospace industry, and the ramifications of spaceflight on our daily lives.
The Daily Princetonian: Could you talk about your Princeton experience, and how you got involved with the space exploration field?
George Whitesides: I’m from the Boston area, my dad is a Harvard professor. I loved the community feel at Princeton, I loved that people would smile at each other. So I came to Princeton and actually thought I was going to be an engineer, but ended up in Woody Woo taking some engineering classes, including a terrific course by Jerry Gray, who taught a course called MAE 399 [Faster & Higher: The Romance and Reality of Space Flight], which was a really creative course. It allowed you to sort of think through a space project from all aspects, not just the technical, but also business, and regulatory and everything, and I loved that integrative approach and, by the way, I think it’s awesome that the new Dean of Engineering is speaking about that integrative learning approach.
I got a Fulbright Scholarship when I graduated, and I went to Tunisia, and I had a lot of time to think about what I wanted to do in the future. The headline was, there were sort of a few different areas that were going to be big in terms of the future: one was neuroscience, another was space. I decided my true passion was space, so I came back and I started working in space areas, space businesses, space policy. I started a few things, I started a business that did zero gravity flights for people, and ran a space policy organization called the International Space Society. Then, I went to NASA, where I was chief of staff. I had bought a couple of tickets to Virgin Galactic, and they recruited me to be their CEO, and I’ve been there for about seven years now.
DP: As a Woody Woo major in a science-dominated industry, do you have a unique perspective when dealing with the company operations or identifying new projects?
GW: I like to think that I have enough of a technical background that I can reasonably be technically literate. As a manager, I mostly deal with people. One of the things I do is that I’m on the MAE Advisory Board at Princeton … and the same thing at Caltech. The thing that I tell folks is that you can be the most brilliant person, but unless you can help make a team work, you won’t be as effective as you can be. I think that the top educational institutions can do more to train future leaders by working in teams, because that’s what you do in the real world. In general, you don’t work alone, it’s very rare to be alone working on something. I think that in many aspects of the educational system where you do work alone, you don’t really mimic real life. So, I deal with people, and Woody Woo was pretty good at that because it has the policy seminar … where you work together on teams. It’s not perfect, but I think that kind of thing is a really helpful background.
DP: In April 2017, Virgin Galactic had a successful test of SpaceShipTwo, the spacecraft that will eventually take people into space. Could you describe how SpaceShipTwo is different from the conventional spacecraft people are used to seeing, and why it’s significant?
GW: At a top level, I think space is going to be really important to the future of humanity, for a lot of different reasons. Understanding our climate, communications, navigation, transportation, exploration, all of these things are the best parts and really important parts of the human experience. Space plays an important role in all of them. What’s the problem? One of the problems is access in space, it’s still a very expensive and challenging endeavor. That is starting to change, which is really exciting, and why is it starting to change? I would say that there are two different reasons. One is that there’s been an influx of private capital, primarily from visionary investors like Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos ’86 and Elon [Musk], new sources of capital organized in private corporations.
Also, the concept of reusability is really starting to take root in space. That’s really important because, for the past 50 years, the way spaceships have gone to space is like you build a spaceship, which is sort of an order of magnitude the cost and complexity of a modern jetliner. And then you fly it to space, and you throw it away at the end of that journey. So you’re building this 100 million dollar object and then you throw it away, so no wonder space is expensive. If you had a 747 and you flew it across the Atlantic, and you threw it away and never used it again, air travel would be expensive too. Of course, it’s not expensive because we reuse that, the 747 [we use] 10,000 times or whatever it is, and we’re just starting to use [spacecraft]. So SpaceX has made some progress on that, Blue Origin has made some great progress on that, and we’re starting to make progress on that. Our vehicle SpaceShipTwo is a fully reusable vehicle that’s designed to take people and experiments up into space on a high-frequency basis. Right now, you take a reusable space shuttle, flew it multiple times a year, but really the separation and time was months and months between flights of a single vehicle. Our aspiration is to be flying once a week, maybe a couple times a week, which would be truly revolutionary.
It would open up space in a way that it has never been done before. What would be the benefits of that? Dramatically more people could go to space, or scientific experiments could get access to the space environment. In general, it would essentially pave the way for trips around the planet, that would be space based. Instead of spending 15 hours to go to Europe or Asia or whatever, you could get there in an hour or two. We’re just at the start of that, in many respects sort of like the very start of commercial aviation in the United States. We’re still trying different ideas, different technologies, there are new companies popping up to attack these problems, create new solutions. So it’s a really exciting time.
DP: You and Richard Branson have indicated that Virgin Galactic will take its first passengers into space starting in 2018. Could you describe what the experience will be like on that first flight?
GW: What we’ll be doing is that you’ll come down to, we have a spaceport in New Mexico called Spaceport America, and it is a commercial spaceport, where you’ll get trained for three, four days down there on how to use the vehicle, how to be safe, how to get the most out of your experience. Then, on flight day, you’ll get up early and your spaceship will be out on the tarmac. We have an air-launch system, so we have a carrier aircraft that carries the spaceship up using just a jet engine, up to about 50,000 feet, where the spaceship releases and the rocket motor ignites, taking you up into space.
That whole journey will last around two hours or so … and once the rocket motor stops firing, after about a minute, everybody will feel weightless. You can get out of your seat, roam around the cabin, and you're not in space for a dramatically long time, but it’s a suborbital journey. Then you come back in, and you’ll basically glide to a landing at the same runway which you took off from originally.
DP: If you were to project 10, 20 years in the future, what will be the direct impact of space travel? Will it be possible to set up human colonies in outer space?
GW: I think there will be a lot of different effects. Closer to home, we will have the opportunity to build what we call point-to-point vehicles, which are rocket-powered or partly rocket-powered, that will dramatically reduce the time it takes to get to different points on the Earth’s surface. We’ve already begun putting together some designs for that. Having more access to space will enable significantly more satellites in space, whether for weather prediction, climate analysis, super-high precision navigation, for the next generation of autonomous cars, or autonomous airplanes, or electric aviation. Ubiquitous high-bandwidth communications, so wherever you are on the surface of the planet, you’ll be able to get broadband with space and terrestrial networks. All that will be really exciting, those are all benefits that will accrue to the people on planet Earth.
As we look outwards, I think depending on your time framework, we’re going to be establishing some kind of outpost on the Moon. We’ll make expeditions to Mars. I think that there may be opportunities to take advantage of resources in space, which is something that we’re starting to contemplate now. That means taking advantage of ice in the lunar poles for rocket fuel. A little bit further out, you’re starting to look at really exciting things like creating arrays of telescopes in orbit so that you can actually see the surface of planets that are orbiting around other stars, which is a really exciting area right now. We may be able to detect eventually forms of life around other stars, which are really big things that fundamentally impacts the way that humanity thinks of itself and its place in the cosmos.
I think it’s a really exciting time, we have several Princeton grads who work for us here … I think for folks coming out of school right now, it’s the most exciting time since Apollo was in space, no question, just because of the amount of innovation, the number of opportunities to work in really exciting stuff. The opportunities for relatively young engineers, scientists to work on really big things very quickly in their career. For a long time, you sort of joined the aerospace industry and you’d be assigned to work on some bolt or bearing, but now you’re running entire engine development programs in your 20s, and it’s a really great time to be in aerospace.