June 28, 2013
On Friday afternoon we had the pleasure of participating in a teleconference with Virgin Galactic. We were joined by the other NASA Academies at Ames, Dryden, Langley, and Marshall for a discussion about opportunities at the flagship of spaceflight companies. There we learned about the opportunities for Academy alums at Virgin galactic and were educated about their key projects, SpaceShip Two along with WhitNightTwo and LauncherOne.
As a brief background, Virgin Galactic is a subset of the Virgin Group aimed at offering suborbital spaceflights for a low cost. In the future they hope to offer orbital spaceflights, first for satellites and later for humans. Their approach to spaceflight is rather unique as their launcher is carried to altitude by a specially designed aeroplane or mothership, released, and lifted to a suborbital trajectory via rocket engine. They are most famous for being the world first commercial spaceline and the winners of the first Ansari X Prize.
The presentation began with the interns from each NASA center present introducing themselves through a 15 second elevator pitch. We were then joined by the five presenters from Virgin Galactic, all of whom were alumni of the NASA Academies. We were first presented to by Will Pomerantz, Vice President for Special Projects at Virgin Galactic. An alum of the NASA Academy at Goddard, Will now focuses on the design of LauncherOne and is contemplating how to use SpaceShipTwo as a research Platform. Next, Alex Hreiz, a Propulsion Engineer at Virgin Galactic and Graduate of the NASA Academy at the NASA Marshal Space Flight Center, who is currently working on the SpaceShipTwo project, described his work. We were then introduced to Kyle Stephens, a Payload Integration Engineer at Virgin Galactic and Graduate of the NASA Academy at Marshall Space Flight Center, who focuses on developing the research and educational payloads to be carried on SpaceShipOne. Then we talked to Marissa Good, a former member of the NASA Academy at Marshall with Kyle, who interned at SpaceX and now works in Engine Design for SpaceShipTwo. We were also joined by Loretta Whitesides, graduate of the NASA Academy at AMES, Co-creator of Yuri’s Night, a flight director for Zero-G’s 727 Aircraft, and wife of George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic. George Whitesides himself even stopped by to say hello and give a few words of encouragement!
The principal focus of the presentation was on the SpaceShipTwo and LauncherOne Projects. SpaceShipTwo is the second generation of the Virgin Galactic Space Vehicle. Approximately twice as large a SpaceShipOne, it is designed to take 2 pilots and six passengers on a suborbital flight that takes roughly and hour and a half. SpaceShipTwo utilizes all of the same technology as SpaceShipOne featuring a hybrid rocket engine, composite construction, and unique feathering re-entry system to allow seamless flight. Of particular interest, in addition to space tourism, is the potential to use SpaceShipTwo as a platform for short term experiments that only need minimal time in space.
LauncherOne will be Virgin Galactic’s first orbital launch vehicle designed to launch small payloads, less than 100 kg, into low earth orbit at a very low cost. LauncherOne has already attracted several niche customers who do not need sophisticated large scale satellites but require the constant monitoring available through a low orbit satellite. Companies interested include Skybox Imaging, GeoOptics, Spaceflight Services, and Planetary Resources.
The presentation ended with an academy wide question and answer session. Questions focused on how one might go about finding a job at Virgin Galactic in response to which we were told to emphasize practical skills and most importantly build things relevant to space travel. There was also some interest in the outreach performed by Virgin Galactic and the amount of public funding Virgin Galactic receives. The overall presentation was extremely informative and instructive concerning how to find position not just at Virgin galactic but at any spaceflight company.