18 May 2019

Dave Mackay: Welcoming Virgin Galactic to The Explorers Club and Meeting the Apollo 11 Astronauts


Our Chief Pilot, Dave Mackay, talks about meeting the Apollo 11 crew and returning a very unique piece of space cargo.

I was privileged to be on the flight deck of SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, as we soared into space for our latest test flight, alongside co-pilot, Mike “Sooch” Massuci. In the cabin behind us, our third crew member, Beth Moses accompanied scientific payloads that we were flying for the NASA Flight Opportunities program. We also carried with us another very special piece of cargo; an item that was flown on the world’s first solar powered round the world flight, and aboard a world record breaking balloon flight – the famous Explorers Club flag.

The Explorers Club was founded in New York in 1904 as a not for profit organization dedicated to scientific exploration of the oceans, land, air and space. For over 100 years, the club’s flag has been carried by some of the world’s greatest explorers on their amazing adventures and has helped to celebrate their wonderful achievements. So it was an incredible privilege to have that very same flag carried onboard Unity as our spaceship’s rocket motor ignited and sent us rocketing towards space at three times the speed of sound.

As we coasted through the Earth’s upper atmosphere and into the black sky of space, marveling at the serenity and jaw dropping views of our planet, it also meant that we were adding another inspiring chapter to the story represented by the flag.

On Saturday, I was invited to tell the tale of this flight, and the years of meticulous planning and hard work our teams completed to make it a reality, to a room of astronauts, aquanauts and other likeminded adventurers who’ve seen more of the world – and universe – than anyone would believe possible. It was The Explorers Club 115TH annual dinner and a celebration of the first humans to set foot on the moon – the Apollo 11 crew. In attendance were 10 Apollo astronauts, all of who played a vital role in the success of that incredible mission, including the second man to walk on the moon, Buzz Aldrin.

The images of Buzz and Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon was what kickstarted my own passion for space and I know it had the same impact on Richard Branson, eventually leading him to launch Virgin Galactic.

It was an honor to spend time with these pioneers of space exploration, whose achievements have inspired millions around the world. Hearing their stories first-hand was a truly exceptional experience; I was as mesmerized by their tales on the night, as I was as a wee boy in front of the TV, at home in Scotland in 1969, watching live as two incredible explorers set foot on a new world.

This summer marks 50 years since that Apollo 11 mission. Until December last year, only 567 people had ever been to space. Since then, Virgin Galactic has created five new Commercial Astronauts and completed two crewed spaceflights – the first from U.S soil since the last space shuttle mission in 2011.

It was an honor to join the Apollo astronauts and speak of how their journeys still inspire us as we push on to our goal of creating the world’s first commercial spaceline.




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.