Unless you’re hip to the locale, you might walk right past Pasadena’s portal to the cosmos without ever knowing the final frontier was so close at hand. That’s because it’s hidden behind an unmarked wood-and-glass door, which in turn is sandwiched between the Soap Factory and a nondescript clothing boutique. Apparently Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson with the lofty goal of putting civilians in space, is as unassuming as its founder is flamboyant. But as I track down the quiet company with the symphonic name, I can’t help but thrill at the prospect of meeting people who spend their days realizing America’s half-forgotten cosmic dreams.
I follow a steep flight of stairs to command central, which is a large reception desk that is dwarfed by a wall-size photo of Spaceport America, the first-ever space travel hub, which is nearing completion in southwest New Mexico. The photo is about the gaudiest thing on display here, and it brings to mind a giant horseshoe crab rising out of the desert. Next, I’m shown to a long, narrow desk in the no-man’s-land between the reception area and the strangely denuded workspace. Putting men into space apparently isn’t all that labor intensive.
Soon, George T. Whitesides emerges from a conference room trailing a handful of extremely normal-looking guys in Oxfords and slacks. Whitesides is tall and fit and looks more boy-next-door than space-cowboy-in-charge in his jeans, pressed shirt and tidy hair. He greets me with the sort of broad smile and hearty handshake that come naturally to nice guys or politicians. When we step through a door and into a commercial alleyway for a coffee and sandwich, it’s remarkable how quickly infinite possibility, the future, pure imagination—whatever you want to call the idea of space—gives way to the banality of a suburban commercial strip.
Whitesides, 38, is in the business of sending you and me—or at least our long-lost wealthy uncle—into space, and he’s got the imposing résumé you’d expect: a master’s degree in high-tech geography from Cambridge University, preceded by an undergraduate degree in public and international affairs from Princeton. He also studied women’s rights in Tunisia on a Fulbright Scholarship.
As a kid, he used to spend a lot of time in school drawing sketches of rockets in his notebook. “I thought I was just drawing rockets, but what I was doing was pretty precise drawings of the Saturn V rockets.” The Saturn V was the hero of NASA’s Apollo program, the largest and most powerful utility rocket in history. It delivered two dozen astronauts and many payloads safely into space and onto the moon during the Apollo mission glory days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Space was the place if you were a kid in those days. It didn’t just stretch the mind and tickle the imagination—it was also coming true right before your eyes.
Whitesides seemed destined to have a passion for space. His father, the eminent Harvard professor George M. Whitesides, earned his doctorate in chemistry at Caltech in Pasadena in 1964. At the time, the neighboring Jet Propulsion Laboratory—formed by Caltech rocket-nerds in the late ’30s—was teaming up with NASA on the unmanned Ranger and Surveyor missions to the moon that paved the way for Apollo.
Nevertheless, the younger Whitesides was headed for a career in foreign policy until that fateful trip to Tunisia revived his childhood dreams. “The night skies were incredible, the Milky Way,” he says. “Any night you could see the entire galaxy.”
In 2002, Whitesides found his way into the space business, at first through the private sector, working for satellite manufacturers, Orbital Sciences Corp., and then for civilian-space-travel visionary Peter Diamandis at Zero Gravity Corp., where he coached parabolic, or zero-gravity, flight maneuvers. Whitesides then spent four years as executive director of the National Space Society, before the incoming Obama administration tapped him for its NASA transition team and then as chief of staff.
He returned to private-sector space exploration in 2010. “The entrepreneurial world is close to my heart, small teams working fast,” he says, in contrast to the nation’s capital, where “the significance of the outside world is only assessed through its impact on D.C.”
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Whitesides was born at the end of the heroic age of space exploration. The last man had walked on the moon in 1972, and the Space Shuttle, after capturing the American imagination early, became more a workaday reality than a public inspiration. Now, even the shuttle has been grounded. NASA has no potent icon for an agency that once was synonymous with American aspiration. The agency is still in space, but mostly by remote control. And, while the science and technology may be invaluable, the experience just isn’t all that sexy.
“For 50 years, there has been no major advance in the human space experience,” Whitesides says. “There’s a universe of knowledge out there, and it’s human destiny to go out there and explore it.”
And the humans doing it are rich ones, mostly. The catalyst for the mogul missions, as we might call the current private rush to space, came in 1996, when Diamandis offered the $10 million X Prize to the first team using private funds that could fly a three-passenger vehicle 100 kilometers into space twice within two weeks. Mojave Aerospace Ventures, owned by Paul Allen and Burt Rutan, won the X Prize with SpaceShipOne.
Now, Virgin Galactic is working with Scaled Composites, founded by Rutan and owned by Northrop Grumman, to develop that technology into commercially viable spaceflights for civilians. “We wouldn’t be here without the X Prize,” says Whitesides. “Without that, the whole commercial space industry wouldn’t be where it is.”
While the suborbital skies may not yet be crowded with tourists Tweeting about how their space flights beat the hell out of Google maps, the posse of wealthy space cowboys staking their claim on the final frontier grows. Robert Bigelow—of the Budget Suites of America fortune—started Bigelow Aerospace in North Las Vegas to develop the future habitats of civilians in space. Diamandis sold Zero Gravity to Space Adventures, a commercial space-flight company owned by aerospace, adventure travel and entertainment entrepreneurs. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos started Blue Origin to compete with Sir Richard on price points—it wants to be the economy-class provider. Blue Origin has a warehouse outside of Seattle and a launch pad in the southwest Texas desert.
But only Virgin Galactic has Ashton Kutcher, whose deposit marked the company’s 500th civilian booked for a future space odyssey.
“We’ve got a better shot at this than anybody has ever had. We’ve got the money, the technology and the brand to make it happen,” Whitesides says, and then offers a cautionary note: “Space is hard. Anybody who has tried to build a space mission knows it’s much harder than it’s portrayed in science fiction.”
Which is why there’s as much cooperation as competition among these startups. They share a common DNA at the top of the organizational chart; many players have worked together for years, and there are plenty of niches to be filled from hardware to software to administrative roles. “There’s a real feeling of brotherhood around this now,” Whitesides says.
There has to be. The biggest brother of all, the federal government, has become increasingly risk-averse when it comes to lofty ideas. Newt Gingrich’s moon-colony musing practically got him laughed off the campaign trail, even though it might have been the sanest thing anyone said.
“Fifty years ago, NASA was doing thing that no one dared to do,” Whitesides says. “These were big, calculated risks.” And while the mantle of manned-space travel has been taken up by private enterprise, public-private cooperation is likely needed to get anywhere soon. After all, Vespucci and Columbus would have been stuck in dry dock for a long time without state sponsorship.
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Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson isn’t NASA, or even Queen Isabella, but he was willing to take some risks back in the mid-2000s. Granted, commodities markets had left New Mexico a little flush, but Richardson put up state money and voters in Sierra and Doña Ana counties in southwest New Mexico approved a tax to raise $200 million and build Spaceport America.
What’s the payoff? An Albuquerque firm managed the construction. New Mexico will be the world headquarters of Virgin Galactic when Spaceport America is complete. And if you look a little further into the future, perhaps the busiest space terminal in the world someday—an O’Hare airport of space travel—will be in southwest New Mexico. It’s a gamble, Whitesides says, “on the future, broadly defined.” He adds that Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., recently said the Spaceport project gives him the sense that “the future will be all right.”
Before all that, though, Spaceport brings something very real and now to struggling southwestern New Mexico: gravity. For years, kids there have grown up and left in search of better opportunities. Part of the Spaceport sell was dedicating a portion of the public levy to science education, and Spaceport America promises to be one of the coolest labs in the world, with future George T. Whitesideses sketching suborbital spaceships in their notebooks.
“This project has such a huge profile,” Whitesides says. “We’ve got to leverage it in a way that inspires 10 million kids to go into science and technology.”