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Guest: George Whitesides, Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic

While Earth-bound citizens grapple with quarantines, a new era of space exploration is blasting off. How are private sector actors and cutting-edge technologies expanding our reach into the galaxy?

The New Frontier is new again: after years of stagnation, emerging players and new technologies have reignited the space race in the 21st century. While the Cold War spurred major scientific and commercial achievements, progress tapered off dramatically as government enthusiasm – and funding – for space exploration waned. But dramatic technological advances and lucrative business models changed the conversation, and private companies are making up for lost time. New investments and fresh private-public partnerships mean that booking an Airbnb in space could happen sooner than we think. Countries like Japan, China, India and the Emirates are jumping in, too, expanding the borders of geopolitics to new heights.

George Whitesides, the Chief Space Officer and former CEO of Virgin Galactic, joined Altamar to discuss the future of space travel. The interview took place just before Sir Richard Branson’s commercial space company tapped Whitesides for the new role and on the heels of a major announcement – Virgin Galactic, in conjunction with NASA, is opening a private astronaut program with public accessibility. Previously, Whitesides served as NASA’s Chief of Staff after working on President Barack Obama’s transition team for the agency. He’s also served as the Executive Director of the National Space Society and is a sought-after advisor for companies and organizations such as the FAA Space Transportation Division, COMSTAC, the Space Generation Foundation, and the Zero Gravity Corporation, among others.

According to Whitesides, Virgin Galactic seeks to “expand space access to everyone so that it’s not just the province of professional astronauts, it becomes the province of you and I, and the benefits of space accrue to everyone.” Whitesides explained that partnerships between NASA and the private sector reignited public interest in space to levels unseen since the Apollo moon landing. He predicts that “there’s going to be this wave of human space flight innovation coming up, and that’s something that really captures the attention of the American public and the international public.”

Resurging interest in space is happening also thanks to technology that’s improved – pardon the pun – astronomically over the years. According to Whitesides, companies are taking advantage of “great technical trends that are driving innovation and playing out in the commercial interest,” such as developments that allow spacecrafts to be reused. As he pointed out, “travel to Europe would be pretty expensive if every time you got on a 747, you threw away the 747 on the other side in London.” In turn, Whitesides believes that passenger-travel to space could soon be a reality: “I think it’s on the order of months and it’s not years, so that’s really the main headline.” And it could expand rapidly after that: “We’re going through this weird, interesting and inspiring transitional moment where, in the past, very few people will have known an astronaut, or have known somebody who has gone to space, whereas going forward, most people will know someone who has been to space, and that’s an interesting transitional hallmark.”

Until recently, only a handful of companies and countries were large enough to invest in space. “This is the kind of thing that takes not just months, or even years, it takes decades sometimes to do these programs,” says Whitesides. But lower costs and more accessible technology are creating opportunities for new ventures. Virgin Galactic and other private sector players are betting that space travel will pay off as people pay big bucks to realize lifelong dreams to visit space. Competition over customers to pay for a rocket ship ticket is likely to be fierce: “Marshalling the resources to maintain efforts over the course of a decade or more is really challenging and requires either strong billionaire backers, or government resources or others.”

The intermingling of private and government funding in space has become no stranger to geopolitics either. Between the US, India, China, the UAE, and countless other government-sponsored programs, space is not just becoming closer and cheaper – it’s also getting more crowded. Although Whitesides thinks an actual space war is unlikely, he expresses caution over the potential for foul play as “different national entities are working at how they can do really serious negative stuff in orbit…There is no doubt there are a lot of nefarious shenanigans going on in orbit today between the Great Powers, and that is something…that’s driving the creation of the Space Force and other kinds of governmental responses.”

Whitesides remains optimistic about the prospects of space travel’s impact on the world: “I think that what we’ve seen is that nations can retain friendly relations in space, even when they’re having pretty challenging relationships on the ground. I think it’s good that humanity has these programs they can work together on even through challenging times.”

Learn more about the next generation of space travel, available for download here.

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Episode 77