Space Commerce

Whitesides Says Virgin Galactic is Undeterred at the AIAA SciTech Conference

By Marc Boucher
January 9, 2015
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Whitesides Says Virgin Galactic is Undeterred at the AIAA SciTech Conference
Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo.
Virgin Galactic.

George T. Whitesides, chief executive officer of Virgin Galactic (VG) and The Spaceship Company, addressed Friday’s plenary session on “Entrepreneurial Aerospace,” at AIAA SciTech 2015.
Whitesides told the audience that while the October accident that destroyed SpaceShipTwo and took the life of co-pilot Michael Alsbury was the “the toughest thing we could undergo, nine weeks later, we are turning the corner and looking toward the future – our team and investors remain committed to the goal of opening space for all.”

Whitesides told the audience that the company is hard at work building another craft, “two-thirds done on the systems, and while we have a lot of work to do, ‘weight on wheels’ is now in sight.” He also said that the current build has allowed time to factor in any recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board stemming from its investigation. “So, because we made the investment to build years ago, our return to flight is closer than expected,” he said. Whitesides also told the audience that the company has assembled a group of highly experienced test pilots for ongoing flight efforts, including some who tested the U-2, Hawker Harrier and F-16 aircraft.

He also announced that VG will begin to work on a third vehicle this summer, noting that “we bought the parts for serial #3 as well. We want to give our engineers a chance to learn as they go through the vehicles. We want to build them quickly but we want to build in lessons from One and Two into Three.”

Whitesides also discussed VG’s LauncherOne program, a small-satellite launch vehicle deployable from the VG spaceship during flight. Using a two-stage liquid oxygen (LOX) RP-1 engine, the launcher “is designed to have the lowest discrete cost of any U.S. [launch] vehicle.” Responding later to an audience question about LauncherOne, Whitesides said he feels that it will be an active player in the small satellite market, and will also make nanosats more viable, especially if constellations of those satellites in low earth orbit come to fruition as they “will need to be refreshed,” thus creating a market for the system.

He ruminated on the role of risk, lamenting society’s risk averse nature and the fundamental misunderstanding of why programs test, explaining “many of the public and press seemed to misunderstand the nature of testing. We test to understand and improve new systems. Failure is not fortunate, and in our case tragic, but it’s part of the deal.” He went on to explain that helping the public and the media understand the role of testing is largely a matter of improving communication and making sure that people understand “the context for probabilities of success and failure – or other less than nominal outcomes.” He also explained, in response to an audience question, that minimizing risks means you need diverse teams, with a liberal sprinkling of “gray-beards, who have a sense of where and when it’s OK to take risks.” He emphasized that it takes a broad spectrum of individuals to help make the “fly-no fly,” decision.

Closing his talk, Whitesides firmly declared: “Understanding space is crucial to save our planet, to solve its greatest challenges, and bringing people into space will help connect people to the Earth in ways not possible now. We will also see advances in vehicles, which are the key to the solar system. We are undeterred in our commitment to these goals. We have another spaceship at hand, and we are hard at work on LauncherOne. And we will succeed!”

By Duane Hyland for SpaceRef

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.