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In A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away: Virgin Galactic’s new CTO Discusses Commercial Space Travel and the Future of the Aerospace Industry

In A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away: Virgin Galactic’s new CTO Discusses Commercial Space Travel and the Future of the Aerospace Industry

Nov 27, 2011

Of Sir Richard Branson’s many inspiring entrepreneurial ventures, Virgin Galactic may sound like the craziest. The company, part of the eclectic Virgin Group, which includes transportation, telecommunications, entertainment and many other companies, offers tourist trips into space starting at $200,000. You can already book a flight (http://www.virgingalactic.com/booking/), although the first commercial passenger launch is still at least two years away. 

The company’s new Chief Technology Officer and Executive Vice President, Steve Isakowitz, shares with MITER his thoughts and expectations about the future of the company and the commercial aerospace industry.  Since earning his B.Sc. and M.Sc. in aerospace engineering from MIT, Isakowitz has played a leading role in shaping US space policy and determining how billions of public dollars are invested. His previous postions included: Deputy Associate NASA Administrator, managing more than $15 billion in aerospace programs; Chief of Science and Space Programs for the White House Office of Management and Budget, overseeing a $50 billion annual space budget; and most recently, the US Department of Energy’s Chief Financial Officer, identifying and prioritizing high pay-off technologies within its $26 billion annual budget.  Now he brings his experience, enthusiasm, and exciting ideas to expand Virgin Galactic’s business in space travel and beyond.

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MITER:  You’ve had a lot of really interesting jobs; but CTO of Virgin Galactic might be the coolest. What are you most looking forward to as you make the transition?

Isakowitz:  I’m looking forward to opening up the space frontier to the public.  I think the US Government has much to be proud of in the space program, including the attainment of important exploration, national security, foreign partnerships, and educational goals.  But 50 years since we started sending astronauts in space, now is the time to make it available to anyone who wants to go.  Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flights are just the first step.

MITER:  That’s pretty exciting. What are your immediate goals and expectations?

Isakowitz:  I’m excited about our expected first rocket-propelled test flights of the Space Ship Two vehicle next year and, if the test program goes as planned, followed by commercial operations the following year.   I think that will be tremendous!

MITER:  You were intimately involved in space exploration programs at NASA and now you’re on the front lines of commercial space travel. What’s it like to see the private sector becoming a driving force in space?

Isakowitz:  I believe it’s the next evolution of space travel, just as commercial airlines where the next evolution after the invention and demonstration of early aircraft designs.  What makes it especially exhilarating is that the private sector promises to make space safe, routine, and accessible to all – all driven by the imperative to find innovative solutions.

MITER:  There’s a lot of controversy right now about the appropriate role of government in space programs. What’s your view?

Isakowitz:  The government has a clear role to play where private investors will not risk their own capital.  This falls into matters of space and earth science, national security, and meteorological observations.  The challenge is that during these fiscally demanding times, the Government simply can’t do it all – nor should it.  Instead, the government should seek to foster commercial solutions – through purchase of services, anchor tenancy, advanced technology development, and supportive space policy.   This will help free up government funding from less demanding tasks so that it can focus on the really hard stuff.

MITER:  Already, more than 400 people have booked a space flight on Virgin Galactic via your website or through your network of “space agents”. What’s your timetable for the first commercial flight?

Isakowitz:  As soon as it’s safe and ready.  As I always say, you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.  Hence, the pressure is on us to get this right.  That is why we have this extensive test program, knocking down each technical uncertainty on a step-by-step basis, so we have the world’s most reliable launch system.  That said, we hope to be flying with paying customers in the next couple years.

MITER:  What will a passenger experience for the estimated $200,000 ticket price?

Isakowitz:  We are building an operation, based out of our fantastic new facility at Spaceport America in New Mexico, which will provide the complete customer experience up to and including the flight itself. Our priorities are to ensure each customer is fully equipped to fly safely and have a truly wonderful experience. So we’ll be spending time on safety procedures, health checks as well as simulating as many aspects of the flight itself as we can. The current $200k price tag is inclusive of this activity and, of course, all in the style of hospitality that Virgin is rightly recognized for throughout the world. Those that have already booked of course have the bonus of being an integral part of the project and of a unique global community as we progress toward commercial operations.

MITER:  Does Virgin Galactic’s business model include anything beyond space tourism? If so, what?

Isakowitz:  Ahhh, now that is why they have hired me!  We are looking at a variety of interesting ideas ranging from possible point-to-point travel ideas to taking people and small satellites to orbit.  But right now we are focused on getting started safely with SpaceshipTwo operations from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

MITER:  Do your investors expect to earn a profit eventually, or are their motives more altruistic than pecuniary?

Isakowtiz:  They are clearly very excited about our first-of-a-kind endeavor to open the space frontier.  Who wouldn’t?  After all, most people have dreamt at some point in their lives of how fascinating it would be to see the earth as very, very few have seen it and to experience the euphoria of being in space.  That said, we expect to earn a profit for them.  That’s why people invest.

MITER:  What’s it like to work for Sir Richard Branson?

Isakowitz:  That might be the coolest part of my job.  I don’t think an endeavor like this can be undertaken unless you work for someone who has vision and the courage to try.  Richard has created a company in Virgin that is unique for its willingness to innovate, be daring, and, yes, even have fun.   I believe he brings a lot of credibility to this effort, given his track record of successful ventures.   Virgin Galactic instills these values which is why I believe we will succeed.

MITER:  Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft are made entirely of composites.  How are advances in materials science affecting the aerospace industry?

Isakowitz:  Scaled Composites is responsible for building our space vehicles.  They are the best in the world!  Burt Rutan, who created it, proved that lightweight materials, especially composites, can open up whole new areas of aerospace design and performance.  Our unique vehicles are taking it even further.

MITER:  Where do you see the next major breakthroughs coming from in aerospace technology?

Isakowitz:  We are entering an age where the economics of space travel must change.  We must bring down the cost if we are to see the rapid pace of innovation that we see in other industries like computing, communications, and electronics.   To do that, we must demonstrate the reusability of launch systems.  One doesn’t throw away airplanes each time we fly on them.  Nor should we do that for space launch.  Hence, we need to demonstrate new capabilities in propulsion, thermal protection, lightweight tanks, and advanced avionics, that will enable a routine, safe, and affordable generation of reusable launch.

MITER:  What opportunities do you see for entrepreneurs in the aerospace industry?

Isakowitz:  I think we are on the verge of true entrepreneurism in space.  I think all facets of our space program will benefit.  I like smaller space systems because they are less expensive than large, complex systems and, hence, provide an opportunity to keep costs down and accept some technical challenges in their designs.  After all, you will not necessarily be betting your whole company on such “bite size” efforts.  That is the place that is ripe for innovation and within reach of entrepreneurs.

MITER:  If you were running a venture fund, where would you invest if financial return was your principle objective?

Isakowitz:  The space program does not have a long list of financial successes.  That is because it is really hard to do.  However, I believe these early forays into commercial space – like Virgin Galactic – will begin to give investors the confidence that new commercial markets are indeed worth investing in.

Grace Young

About

Grace Young is an undergraduate at MIT majoring in ocean engineering, with interests in robotics, physics, computer science, and architecture. Last summer she worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution building autonomous aircraft for ocean surveying. The summer before she worked at CERN, the large hadron collider, developing software for particle physicists, and at the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Cybernetics Lab in Boston applying statistical methods for bioinformatics. Her other work experience includes quantum computing research at The Joint Quantum Institute and analysis of electrical properties of carbon nanotubes at Johns Hopkins. She is a member of MIT’s varsity sailing team, Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, and Arts Scholar Program. She is also the 2012-2013 recipient of MIT’s Robert Bruce Wallace Academic Prize in Ocean Engineering.