Speaking late Sunday at the New Horizons in Science conference, a meeting of science writers at the University of Florida, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides did not make much news for those who have been following the company’s suborbital vehicle developments. (Full video of the talk, which was webcast live, is above.) Perhaps the most newsworthy development was the schedule for the company’s next powered SpaceShipTwo flight. “We’re about a month away from our next flight, maybe a little less, depending on how things go,” he said. It has been exactly two months since the last powered SpaceShipTwo flight, on September 5; that flight was the first since the inaugural powered test flight on April 29. (Last month, at the ISPCS conference in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic president Steve Isakowitz said the next flight would take place “very soon,” but was not more specific.)
Whitesides’s speech was primarily an overview of Virgin Galactic to an audience that may not follow the company that closely. His presentation ended with something of a request for the assembled media to put projects like his in context. “We face a challenge in the Western world right now, and that is an aversion to risky projects,” he said, calling this risk aversion a problem. “We need a capacity to engage in audacious, bold, and risky projects in our society.” The media, he said, have a responsibility to “contextualize” such efforts and the resulting perceptions by the public and policymakers.
“I’m not arguing that that means the press should cast an uncritical eye towards such projects,” he said, counting Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo as one example. “But, in cases like, for example, flight tests, you all play a critical role in explaining to the information consumer what’s really going on, and how people should think about it… We’re doing flight tests now. Things will go wrong in flight tests, I guarantee you… The point of flight tests is to figure out where things go wrong and to fix them before you put them into commercial service.”
The questions that Whitesides got after his presentation demonstrated that the audience already had a wide range of views about his company and human spaceflight in general. One person was critical of human spaceflight, saying that “scientific return” of human spaceflight paled in comparison to robotic missions. “With all the problems we have on Earth, why are we creating amusement park rides in space for rich people?” he asked.
“We are privately funded,” Whitesides responded, “so, it’s not up to you. You have a right to talk about your tax dollars, because it’s your tax dollars. This is not your money, so you don’t have a right to say that it shouldn’t be done.”
At something close to the other extreme was another audience member who asked if Virgin Galactic would be offering free SpaceShipTwo flights to the media. Whitesides said they were considering something along those lines. “We’ve been thinking about what to do with those open seats” that are created by last-minute cancellations, he said. Some would be filled by employees, but “there may well be an opportunity for certain media to come along.” In that case, he said they would probably train some select media in advance and have them report to the spaceport on a couple days’ notice when an opening appears.