22 May 2020

A Bright Future For Commercial Human Spaceflight


This weekend American astronauts flew to the International Space Station aboard an American spacecraft for the first time since the Space Shuttle flew nearly a decade ago. The space industry has seen remarkable evolution in that time. This latest flight took place aboard a commercial vehicle, a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, which represents another milestone in an exciting new era for spaceflight.

The NASA demo-2 SpaceX launch is part of a larger story that we should all recognize and celebrate. It is and will increasingly be, a global story, but the US can be proud to have taken the lead in harnessing the ingenuity and innovation of the private space sector. This, enabled by forward-looking policies from its public leaders and civil space program, has laid the foundations for the next space age.

This historic moment would not have been possible without the US government’s commitment to sensible regulatory reform, its support in being an early-stage buyer of emerging space services, and a renewed focus on STEM education and training to develop our future aerospace workforce. But most importantly, it has been driven by a willingness of the government, customers, entrepreneurs, and investors to unleash the private sector and leverage what it does best – innovate, iterate, and compete, all while saving money in the process.

This is evident in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a project that has brought about the genesis of two human-rated, orbital-class spacecraft with tremendous cost-savings. It can also be seen elsewhere, across a broad portfolio of public and private space projects: in NASA’s industry-driven approach for lunar landers for its Artemis moon program; in commercial providers leveraging private financing to offer resupply services for the International Space Station; and in the evolving genesis of space-based industrial R&D and commercial space habitats, which is enabling a sustainable transition toward a low Earth orbit economy.

With Commercial Crew, NASA took a chance on the private sector to provide routine and reliable transportation services for its most valuable asset, humans, and to do it safely and cost-effectively. Through the hard work of employees at SpaceX and Boeing and suppliers across the country, it is paying off. More and more, commercial companies are achieving missions and providing services that were once exclusively the domain of government, such as human spaceflight. Everyone involved in the space enterprise is set to gain from this by learning from those experiences to advance their own aspirations and visions.

Virgin Galactic already sees this mutual benefit at work in our own partnerships, such as NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, which provides researchers access to the valuable microgravity of suborbital space aboard commercial vehicles like our SpaceShipTwo. While today their experiments fly autonomously aboard our vehicle without a ‘human-in-the-loop’, NASA is now considering letting scientists fly in the spacecraft alongside their payload to manually tend to their research. This will revolutionize space-based science and open up a global commercial market for human-tended suborbital space research. It is yet another example of the private sector stepping up to a challenge, providing a unique service for NASA, and then using that capability to develop new markets and new means of business.

The work of commercial space companies today means that the spaceflight experience is no longer limited exclusively to government-funded projects.  Instead, space is becoming increasingly accessible to more people and for the benefit of all.These companies are making commercial human spaceflight a reality and allowing a growing cohort of commercial astronauts to emerge. There is no end to the exciting opportunities and possibilities this could bring, such as commercial astronauts or academic researchers being able to experience space in a more affordable way aboard SpaceShipTwo, or getting a ride to a space station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon or Boeing’s Starliner. It is a future where our way of life on Earth is enhanced as more people experience the global perspective brought about by experiencing space.

The high-profile return of orbital human spaceflight flight to the United States is sure to generate desire among many to go themselves – whether by applying to government agency astronaut corps around the world or reserving their own ticket onboard a commercial space vehicle.

This democratization is being made a reality today by the many thousands of talented scientists, bright young engineers, and other employees who are working on human spaceflight projects for the space industry.

Especially during these challenging times brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, this future-oriented workforce gives us confidence in the ultimate resilience of our nation and economy. Today, an aspiring young individual looking for a career in STEM can now look to a multitude of space organizations to contribute to our future in space. For many in past generations, the government-driven Apollo moon landings were the formative inspiration to pursue a career in engineering or science. For generations today and to come, there will be landmark events driven by innovative organizations across the country. That lasting impact is perhaps as significant as the mission itself.

The team at Virgin Galactic have been celebrating NASA and SpaceX’s successful flight, and the many other milestones the space industry is set to achieve over the coming years as we move our journey in space forward. 




George T. Whitesides is the Chair of the Space Advisory Board, where he is responsible for bringing together aerospace leaders to advise the Virgin Galactic senior management team on the journey towards regular commercial spaceflight, developing the next generation vehicles and exploring new opportunities. Previously, George served as the Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic, spearheading the development of future technologies, including high speed, point-to-point travel and orbital flight, after stepping down as CEO in 2020.

George joined Virgin Galactic in 2010 as Chief Executive Officer. During George’s 10 years with the Company, he built the company from 30 people to a workforce of over 900, successfully guiding Virgin Galactic through its human space flight R&D and flight test program, culminating in two space flights. These historic flights saw the first humans launched into space from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, as well as the first woman to fly on a commercial space vehicle. George led the transition of operations from Mojave, California to Spaceport America, New Mexico, and oversaw the company’s successful public listing making it a multi-billion dollar company and creating the world’s first publicly traded human spaceflight venture.

Prior to Virgin Galactic, George served as Chief of Staff for NASA. Upon departure from the American space agency, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the agency confers.

George’s volunteer service includes Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, Princeton University’s Advisory Council for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Antelope Valley Economic Development & Growth Enterprise. He is a fellow of the UK Royal Aeronautical Society and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He previously served as Vice Chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, chair of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, a member of the Board of Directors of Virgin Galactic, a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies, and the Board of Virgin Unite USA. 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. An honors graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, George later earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Tunisia. George is a licensed private pilot and certified parabolic flight coach.

He resides in California with his wife Loretta and two children.




Colonel Chris Hadfield is a heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and test pilot who has commanded the International Space Station. Formerly NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia and veteran of three spaceflights, Hadfield’s many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Hadfield is a three-time NYT bestselling author, a renowned musician, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, chair of the board of the Open Lunar Foundation, and host of several internationally acclaimed television series. In addition, Hadfield leads the space stream at the Creative Destruction Lab, one of the world’s top tech incubators.




Dr. Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is the Principal at AstroPlanetview, LLC. Most recently she served as the Deputy Director of Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Undersecretary of Research and Engineering. In that role she served as the “Chief Engineer” for the Department of Defense establishing engineering policy, propagating best practices and working to connect the engineering community across the department.

Dr. Magnus is the former Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Prior to leading AIAA, she was a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps for 16 years. During her time at NASA she flew in space on the STS-112 shuttle mission in 2002, and on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. In addition, she flew to the International Space Station on STS-126 in November 2008, served as flight engineer and science officer on Expedition 18, and returned home on STS-119 after four and a half months on board.

Following her assignment on Station, she served at NASA Headquarters in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Her last duty at NASA, after STS-135, was as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office.

While at NASA, Dr. Magnus worked extensively with the international community, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as with Brazil on facility-type payloads. She also spent time in Russia developing and integrating operational products and procedures for the International Space Station.

Before joining NASA, Dr. Magnus worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company as a stealth engineer. While at McDonnell Douglas, she worked on internal R&D and on the Navy’s A-12 Attack Aircraft program.

Dr. Magnus has received numerous awards, including the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the 40 at 40 Award (given to former collegiate women athletes to recognize the impact of Title IX).




Dr. David A. Whelan is the SVP Chief-Scientist of Cubic Corporation. Dr. Whelan retired from Boeing in 2017, as the Vice President, Engineering (BDS) and Board of Directors for HRL Laboratories. Whelan served as Director of the Tactical Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and began his career at Northrop as designer of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Whelan is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Physical Society and IEEE. He earned his Ph.D. Physics from UCLA; He holds over 75 US patents.