Virgin Galactic’s CEO: We’re at an Inflection Point for Space Travel
“When it’s ready, honey. When it’s ready.”
That’s what Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides says to his wife, Loretta, when she asks when they will be the first couple to take their honeymoon in space.
Loretta’s been waiting for quite a while. Whitesides, a former NASA chief of staff, has been CEO of the company for five and a half years.
But to hear Whitesides tell it, that day is coming soon. In an interview with Fortune’s Michal Lev-Ram at Brainstorm E, Fortune’s energy and environment conference in Carlsbad, Calif. Virgin Galactic—which is funded to the tune of $600 million by Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Group, and Aabar Investments Group, the sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi—is hoping to get ready to launch satellites, if not people, by sometime in 2017. Lined up for a $250,000 seat on the spaceship Unity, when it launches, are the likes of not just the Whitesides’, but also 700 others, including Stephen Hawking, Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, and Katy Perry. “We’re at an inflection point,” Whitesides says. “Only about 550 people have ever gone to space. Come back in 10 years and thousands of people will have gone.”
Not that it’s exactly a poor man’s pleasure at $250,000—but according to Whitesides, traveling in space with Virgin Galactic is a bargain. “The Russians charge NASA $70 million to go to the international space station,” he says.
Although Virgin Galactic is on track now, there have been plenty of bumps along the road. The most serious was s crash of a test flight in 2014 in which one co-pilot was killed. As a result, the company brought in house its testing mechanism. “We made sure that the things that happened can’t be done,” Whitesides says.
The spaceship carries six passengers and two pilots. But what kind of food? Says Whitesides: “At $250,000, you can get your peanuts whatever way you want.”