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Q&A: George Whitesides.

GEORGE WHITESIDES HAS A JOB SOME ENGINEERS ENVY: He is creating the world's first privately owned commercial space travel company. Building on SpaceShipOne, the aircraft-launched spacecraft that won the Ansari X Prize for the first private manned spaceflight in 2004, he helped create the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, which could undertake a manned flight as early as this year. Prior to joining Virgin, Whitesides was NASA chief of staff and executive director of the National Space Society, an advocacy group. He also held positions at Blastoff Corp., Zero Gravity Corp., and Orbital Sciences.

ME: How did you wind up at Virgin Galactic?

G.W: My wife and I were among Virgin Galactic's first customers, and we kept in touch with Virgin Galactic through that relationship. When the company began seeking a new CEO, it turned to its customers, who believed in the commercialization of space. I guess they thought that as NASA chief of staff, I knew something about the subject.

ME: Is privatization the way forward?

G.W: Government involvement is appropriate for certain activities, particularly large, complex, and costly science-related projects with tong time scales. But humans innovate best in smaller teams operating under some pressure with relatively short time scales. Technology has advanced, and things that private space companies, especially smaller ones, are doing today were not in the realm of feasibility 20 years ago. The private sector is also more efficient when it comes to cost and schedule.

ME: A ticket on SpaceShipTwo costs $250,000. Is space only for the wealthy?

G.W: The only other way to get into space is to pay the Russians $70 million.

We're radically changing the cost of human spaceflight, and we have reason to believe that costs will come down as we amortize our development costs. I believe that in 10 years, most people in the United States will know somebody who has been to space.

ME: How fast will that happen?

G.W: Our aspiration is to bring prices down. As we build more vehicles and schedule several flights a day, I think we will be able to offer lower-cost services.

Further into the future, we want to build larger vehicles. Just as large jets drove down trans-Atlantic fares, larger spacecraft will make space more affordable. Are we going to see a 700-person spaceship any time soon? Probably not, but you get the idea. Taking more people into space at a time will have an impact on cost.

ME: What else is on the boards?

G.W: In addition to larger spaceships, we might create a point-to-point service from one side of the globe to the other. Spaceships could reduce travel times without sonic boom problems by slowing down over the ocean and landing quietly in a city.

ME: What about prolonged flights?

G.W: I'm optimistic. For example, Bigelow Aerospace, a private company, has already launched two model space habitats and plans to add one to the International Space Station in a few years. There's no reason why something like that wouldn't work. Down the road, perhaps someone will offer trips around the moon that take a few weeks. Technically, it's very doable. It just takes capital.

ME: Some people argue that robots could explore space more efficiently. Why should humans venture into space?

G.W: I believe that humanity's destiny is truly out among the stars, and that we have a responsibility to explore the solar system and eventually the cosmos. There is no question that we will collaborate with increasingly competent robots, and use technologies like telepresence and haptic feedback to share exploration with people on Earth. Ultimately, humans and robots will complement each other.
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Title Annotation:TECH BUZZ//ONE-ON-ONE
Author:Brown, Alan S.
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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