08 April 2020

Supporting Our Communities: Our Work With The Antelope Valley COVID-19 Task Force

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By George Whitesides, CEO Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company

As we all continue to feel the direct impact of COVID-19 in our day-to-day lives, I’ve been inspired by the teamwork shown in the Antelope Valley (AV) of California to respond to the challenge of COVID-19. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we share knowledge, skills and collaborate.

A few weeks ago, doctors at the Antelope Valley Hospital (AVH) approached local aerospace engineers to work on fast solutions to the problems of providing care to COVID-19 patients. In response, engineers and technicians from our team at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (TSC) joined with experts from the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, Antelope Valley College and the City of Lancaster to assemble a COVID task force. The group’s aim has been to help hospitals in this region manage the patient surge that is increasing demands on PPE and breathing assistance mechanisms and risking doctor and nurse health.

Deputy Mayor Dr. Lawrence Stock, an Emergency Medicine Physician and Vice-Chairman of the Emergency Department and Chair of the Bioethics Committee at AVH said: “Early into the pandemic, AVH recognized the potential strain that COVID-19 could impose on our local medical resources. With the support of the team, what began as a conversation on 3D printing small connectors and parts, morphed into not only securing resources in high demand but also working prototypes for critical items within the hospital. It is mind-boggling. We are grateful and know together we can overcome this pandemic”.

After several weeks of daily calls, spanning a growing team of talented folks from inside the AV as well as beyond, the team has produced results in several areas.

  • Perhaps most important, they’ve designed and built several prototype patient oxygen hoods, which allow oxygen rich pressure to support those admitted with COVID-19 – opening up the alveoli in the lungs, and helping to delay or prevent Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) from developing. By mitigating ARDS, we hope this will then reduce the subsequent need for ventilator support.

  • The team has also designed and built two designs for protective enclosures to reduce risk for health workers during intubation procedures, as well as a design for an antechamber for those workers to don and doff protective clothing. The Intubation Shield is a transparent enclosure that fits over the patient’s head with holes to enable a doctor to reach in and perform the difficult Intubation process with less exposure to COVID-19.

  • The team is helping local hospitals set up a distributed oxygen delivery system for a local field hospital, to be ready for a potential surge in patients.

  • Finally, the procurement teams of industry and the city are serving as an extra set of arms to rapidly source additional PPE and supplies for the hospitals, whether that be masks, fingertip oximeters, gowns or respirators.

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris has been at the forefront of the preparation efforts, working with partners throughout the AV. “With the impact of COVID-19 evolving daily, it became increasingly important to me to partner together to meet the needs of our community during this challenging time. The Antelope Valley has always been the heart of the Aerospace Valley. With a long history of changing the world, it is almost expected, and this time of crisis is no exception. This talented team has truly come together and created devices that will save lives. We are the example. I am incredibly proud of the ingenuity of this team and thank everyone involved.”

So how has the team worked so far, and what lessons can we share with other communities as they organize to handle local challenges? Most of all, we’ve emphasized speed of response, working with existing resources and relationships where we can, inventing where necessary, and trying to stay attuned to what the caregivers need most now.

For example, for the oxygen hoods, NASA Armstrong and TSC engineers have designed and built several prototypes, and already delivered 50 working hoods to the hospital. These prototypes are now being tested for comfort, ease of use and functionality. We hope they will serve as pathfinders for other communities who see the therapeutic benefits of non-invasive oxygen therapy and who may also have shortages of ventilators.

Along the way, we identified the promising capacity of a small company in Texas called Sea-Long, that was already manufacturing hyperbaric oxygen hoods. Working to increase capacity wherever it could be found, we worked to increase their production in parallel by financing more manufacturing machines and sending down a team of manufacturing experts to help increase their production flow. That team, led by Byron Henning, one of our top engineers at TSC, is now on-site to help advise on the production ramp up of a non-invasive ventilation hood based on their Sea-Long Hyperbaric Product.

As we continue all these efforts, our objective remains to create hoods that can be manufactured quickly, allow for mass production, and can be built at a low cost. We hope this technology, which has been widely used in Italy, will continue to be helpful over the coming weeks and months.

As we have proceeded, we’ve tried to help on challenges as they have come up. For example, the NASA team has been designing a safe oxygen distribution system that technicians will assemble at the local field hospital. In addition, engineers and fabrication technicians are developing system prototypes such as mobile station barrier for patient care PPE (a protective cart) and an easy-to-assemble chamber as an enclosed staging room prior to entering a contaminated area.

David Voracek is the lead NASA engineer for the AV Task Force, and the chief technologist for NASA Armstrong. He’s worked with great center talent, like engineer Mike Buttigieg, to rapidly develop several prototypes such as the hoods. “We’ve looked across our Center’s expertise in innovation, engineering, design, and fabrication of unique systems, to bring NASA knowledge and people together to collaborate on solving the needs and challenges brought about by the COVID-19 situation.”

In these unprecedented times, our thanks continue to go to every member of this talented and growing team, who are working on, testing, or manufacturing these much-needed pieces of equipment. Most of all, we are thankful for the brave caregivers in our hospitals, clinics and labs who are on the front lines of this generational challenge. I continue to believe that human ingenuity, toughness, and community resilience will beat COVID-19 – and couldn’t be prouder of this team, at such a difficult time.

GEORGE WHITESIDES

GEORGE WHITESIDES

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD CHAIR

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.

CHRIS HADFIELD

CHRIS HADFIELD

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

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 MAGNUS

DR SANDRA MAGNUS

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

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).

DAVID A. WHELAN

DAVID A. WHELAN

SPACE ADVISORY BOARD MEMBER

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.