George T. Whitesides: The Innovation Interview

George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, the spaceflight company founded by Sir Richard Branson shares his thoughts and insights on innovation, technology and the future of space travel.

With Scaled Composites, the company has developed the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles, based on the X Prize-winning SpaceShipOne. In his role, George is responsible for guiding all aspects of the company to commercial operation at Spaceport America in New Mexico. This includes oversight of The Spaceship Company, a sister company, to manufacture a fleet of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo space vehicles.

Prior to Virgin Galactic, George served as Chief of Staff for NASA, where he provided policy and staff support to the agency’s Administrator. Upon departure from NASA, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the agency confers.

Prior to his role at NASA, George served as Executive Director of the National Space Society (NSS), a space policy and advocacy group that was founded by Apollo program leader Wernher von Braun and the journalist Hugh Downs.

George began his career at Orbital Sciences Corporation as Executive Intern, and later, Special Assistant to the President. He served as Vice President of Marketing for Zero Gravity Corporation, a private space-tourism company, during its launch period, and Director of Marketing for Blastoff Corporation, a space experience company funded by film and technology leaders.

Currently, George serves on the board of Virgin Unite USA, the philanthropic organization of Virgin Group. He is also a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Space Security; an advisory board member of the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement Foundation; a fellow of the UK’s Royal Aeronautical Society; and an associate fellow of AIAA. He previously chaired the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. He served for four years on the Board of Trustees of Princeton University.

With his wife Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides, George co-founded Yuri’s Night, an annual global celebration of space that has been celebrated in more than 50 countries. He also cofounded Permission to Dream, a global space education program that donates telescopes to underprivileged children.

George has testified on American space policy before the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. Space News selected him as one of 12 “People to Watch” in the space industry.

An honors graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, George earned his undergraduate degree in public and international affairs. He later earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge in England, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Tunisia. George is a licensed private pilot and certified parabolic flight coach.

How do you define innovation and what does it mean to you?

Innovation at it’s heart is doing things new, differently and better. Innovation is something that we think a lot about at Virgin Galactic. Almost everything that we do is in some way new.

What industry needs to embrace innovation and take more risks?

Every industry needs to embrace innovation. What we are trying to do in aerospace is to embrace innovation but keep it smart by not necessarily taking more substantial risks. At Virgin Galactic we are doing things in ways that are different than before which is a slightly different thing.

What is the best piece of advice that you have been given and received?

The best piece of advice that I have received is to go into conversations assuming that individuals are basically acting in good faith. Sometimes they are not acting in good faith, but by starting from that assumption rather than the opposite is the best approach. If more individuals took this approach, organizations would run better and individuals would have better relationships.

What is your greatest achievement and why?

At Virgin Galactic we are making great achievements every day. Our two biggest achievements have been getting to rocket powered flight which we are now testing as well as reaching out to future astronauts and creating a fantastic community of individuals who want to fly with us. We are really proud of the community of individuals because they are truly remarkable.

Newspapers and Books: Digital or Physical?

I read both, however, I do not read a lot of physical books these days due to the limited amount of time that I have available. With regards to newspapers, I mostly read them online and occasionally I will read a physical newspaper.

With the discontinuation of the NASA Shuttle Program in 2011, how do we inspire a new generation of children who will not grow up with Shuttle launches about Space?

There are a tremendous amount of exciting things going on in space right now and there is no shortage of exciting things to inspire children.

In the commercial sector companies such as Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital, Blue Origin and Bigelow Aerospace are doing a tremendous amount of innovation. I would argue that there is a much greater level of innovation happening now than has occurred in the recent past in the space industry.

Then there are all these fantastic robotic missions that are currently underway. Whether we are exploring Mars or detecting exoplanets around other star systems. There are an incredible amount of exciting things currently happening in space.

One of the greatest advantages NASA had with the Space Shuttle Program was the exposure inside classrooms. Do you think the commercial space sector will eventually make its way into the classroom much the way the Space Shuttle Program did?

I do. At Virgin Galactic we have a new educational initiative called Galactic Unite which seeks to do just that. What excites children is not just programs that go into schools, but actually doing real hands-on things that affect the whole culture.

Millions of children got excited about the Apollo program since the country was doing a really big thing – a big new thing. If we are focused on big, real problems, whether it is in space or not, children will become excited.

I am not diminishing the educational component, but the most important thing is for adults to be tackling really tough, big problems – exciting problems. This is something that I think would get children inspired.

What are the greatest lessons that you learned from NASA and how are you currently applying them to Virgin Galactic?

There are a lot of lessons that I learned at NASA, but I suppose that one of the key lessons was that you need to let the organization work. You cannot micromanage an organization like NASA where there are roughly 18,000 direct employees.

My sense is that you need to let the organization work and work with the organization to achieve great results. Then you have to get individuals in a good place by realizing that they are working in a special place. NASA is a special place and Virgin Galactic is also a very special place. When individuals understand they are in a special place they will go out and do great things.

SpaceShipTwo is a remarkable feat of engineering with it’s aerodynamic design and ability for a simplified re-entry. How many prototypes did Virgin Galactic develop before it finally got the design, safety and functionality to work in perfect harmony and what new technologies did you have to invent to achieve this goal?

The company that we are working with to build ShapeShipTwo is a company called Scaled Composites, which is a fantastic, innovative organization that has built literally hundreds of aircraft over the last 35 years.

The specific prototype that preceded SpaceShipTwo was something called SpaceShipOne which successfully flew individuals into space on sub-orbital journeys and on missions. We are building on the foundation of the hundreds of aircrafts that Scaled Composites has designed over the years. This foundation allowed us to design and set into action both SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.

The key technologies that we developed are a feathered re-entry system which was probably the biggest single innovation as well a very simple hybrid propulsion system. There is also a whole of range of innovations in the vehicle such as control systems.

What is the future of space exploration?

In my opinion, it will entail a lot of very exciting robotic missions because we can send robots to places where humans can’t go right now. For example, we are thinking about a mission to Europa. The surface of Europa would be a very challenging place due to the radiation for humans, but it is a place where you could send a robot.

I hope that we will send humans to Mars in my lifetime as this is definitely doable. As the future of space evolves, we could see the creation of private space habitats in orbit in which Virgin Galactic will be able to eventually take thousands and someday potentially millions of individuals into space which will fundamentally change humanity’s relationship with space.

Space exploration will change in a large and fundamental way. The future is very exciting.

With Sir Richard Branson’s dedication to exploration and new ventures, will we soon see Virgin Galactic suborbital flights from the United States to Asia?

We are really excited about the possibility of suborbital flights. This is a few years down the road because this would require a different type of vehicle. However, this is something that we are laying the foundation for with SpaceShipTwo. Many of the technologies we would use in a point to point vehicle are innovations that we are currently demonstrating on SpaceShipTwo.

Suborbital flights will not happen next year, but it is something that we are thinking a lot about. It is my hope that over time the world will come to understand space travel in a similar way to the world understands aviation today. Suborbital flights will be an exciting project for us all to work on in the near future.