"Space Is Wide Open": Talking With Virgin Galactic CTO Steve Isakowitz

"We're opening up the space frontier to all, not just those lucky few public astronauts who are sponsored by the government or those that happen to be rich enough to be able to spend 40 million to fly on a Russian vehicle."
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Steve Isakowitz, Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for the supercool space tourism company Virgin Galactic, gave a presentation to BU SEDS (that is, the Boston University chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space) entitled "A Career in Space." He discussed the company's progress since the famous flight of their SpaceShipOne vehicle back in 2004, as well as his own career path from MIT to NASA to the Department of Energy before coming to work for Virgin Galactic.

I mentioned in my last post that my serious interest in space began when I heard about the Voyager Golden Record in my fifth-grade science class. But SpaceShipOne's success was really the first major news event in space travel that occurred after this epiphany. I still have the clipping about it from my Scholastic News! I've followed all of their progress very eagerly and kept a scrapbook full of similar clippings until the college search process sapped my free time.

So I was thrilled to be able to sit down with Mr. Isakowitz after his presentation and talk about suborbital flight, sleep, spaceships, and Superman!

Me: Okay, so I guess we have to start with the basic stuff. Could you please give a brief description of what the Virgin Galactic company is for people who haven't heard of it? (aside) Shame on them if they haven't already, SHAME-ON-THEM.

Steve Isakowitz (SI): (laughs) Yes. Virgin Galactic is the aspiration to be the world's first commercial spaceline, to give people the opportunity to experience space, and to make it available for everybody.

Me: And, your vehicles SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, what exactly is the experience with those like, how do they work?

[Note: Yes, Virgin Galactic really likes medial capitals.]

SI: We have two vehicles that are mated together. WhiteKnightTwo is an airplane specially designed to carry up our rocketplane called a SpaceShipTwo. Once it gets at the appropriate altitude, it drops the SpaceShipTwo, the rocket fires, and it launches people to an altitude that exceeds a hundred kilometers, to give them the experience of being like an astronaut, the views of being an astronaut, floating around in a gravity-free environment like the astronauts do, and then returning safely in this winged rocketplane.

Me: And, the naming system with the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo, I'm not sure how that works. I've heard a lot of different things. The SpaceShipTwos, I think, are named for the space shuttles, they have the same names as them?

SI: With the SpaceShipTwos, I think the first one is called Enterprise.

Me: Yes.

SI: I don't know if it was intended to mirror the Enterprise which was the first space shuttle development vehicle for NASA. The first WhiteKnightTwo is named Eve, for Richard Branson's mother.

Me: And I heard that there would be one named for Steve Fossett?

[Note: Fossett is a friend of Branson's who died in a plane crash in 2007.]

SI: Yeah, that I don't know.

Me: Would you like to fly on a SpaceShipTwo?

SI: Absolutely.

Me: So, imagine you're in the SpaceShipTwo, you've gotten to the point where you're in microgravity, you're unbuckled, what's the first thing you would do?

SI: The first thing I would do would be to immediately go to the window so that I could see the Earth like few have ever seen it.

Me: Do you think it would look great?

SI: I've heard from people, and certainly the astronauts that have been up there, that it's a life-altering experience to see the planet without borders from the perspective of space.

Me: I'd love it, too! So, what exactly do you do as the CTO?

SI: My function is sort of two-fold. One is sort of, as the Chief Technology Officer, to ensure that this basic vehicle that's going to go through testing over the next couple of years, is going to be ready to fly for commercial operations. And to do so at an affordable cost, reliably and safely.

The second thing is sort of to look beyond, to see what are some of the new things we could be doing. Recently, we had a contract with NASA to actually fly research payloads and maybe someday research scientists aboard the spaceship. We're also looking at other things, such as maybe perhaps putting a launch vehicle underneath the WhiteKnight to take small satellites into space. And who knows, maybe someday. We're also aspiring to do point-to-point suborbital travel and use our rocketplanes to fly people between different major cities.

Me: I'm really excited by that possibility. I think that since the retirement of the Concorde, we have had a serious lack of awesome in commercial air travel, and I think that would definitely bring it back.

SI: (laughs)

Me: So, what's your favorite part of your job?

SI: I would say my favorite part is just the vision of the company. I think that Richard Branson has created a company that's known for innovation, for being daring, and for having fun. I think that's what we're trying to do, although it's a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights, and a lot of concern to make sure we get it right. I'm working with a lot of great people, and we're going to have fun and we're going to bring that experience to passengers that are fortunate enough to fly with us.

Me: What's your least-favorite part of your job?

SI: My least-favorite part of the job... the commuting. My home is in Washington, DC, our headquarters is in Pasadena, California, so I'm spending a lot of time flying out to California. I take the red-eye when I come back, so I look kind of sleepy like I do now. This morning, I flew on the red-eye here to Boston.

Me: A serious lack of awesome, like I said.

SI: (laughs) But-- the excitement keeps you going! So, sleep is my least-important priority right now.

Me: What's the strangest part of your job?

SI: Strangest... hmmm... I don't know if strange is the word I would use, but the part that I didn't have as much of an appreciation for before I started is what I referred to earlier today as the customer experience. I come from an aerospace background where we build rockets and say, here's your seatbelt, strap yourself in, stop complaining! With Virgin, it has that culture of really making it an incredible experience for someone who's going to go into space. So there's a lot of careful thought, whether it's our new spaceport in New Mexico or whether it's the actual ride on the spaceship, or whether it's the activities that come before and after the experience, all so that what people take away is a really memorable event.

Me: Why do you feel that this is important?

SI: From the grandest perspective, I think it's one of the grand evolutions of mankind. To move out into new frontiers. We have conquered much in our exploration of the Earth, although there are still interesting places to go, but space is wide-open. I think it gets interesting when you give everyone the experience of getting into space, I think that will inspire more support to do the other really hard things like going to the moon, and someday to Mars. And I think that what we're doing, if we're successful, is going to be game-changing, and we'll prove the practicality of private markets being able to support space travel.

Me: So what you do will help others along, it's a team effort?

SI: We're opening up the space frontier to all, not just those lucky few public astronauts who are sponsored by the government or those that happen to be rich enough to be able to spend 40 million to fly on a Russian vehicle. But to people who want to have that experience, and share it with their kids, and hopefully inspire the creation of new generations of vehicles that can further lower the cost of getting into space.

Me: How did you first get interested in space travel?

SI: Well, I was inspired by the Apollo Program. I just thought that it was incredibly audacious of President Kennedy to commit the nation to get to the moon and back within a decade. At the time he made that announcement, rockets were blowing up left and right and we couldn't even get a small pebble into orbit safely, let alone putting an astronaut on the moon.

Me: I don't know if you saw my pin, but... (Points to "If I Were 21, I'd Vote For Kennedy" pin bought at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.)

SI: (laughs) Okay! Yes, I thought that it was an inspirational time when there were really no limits to the frontier. I thought that the Saturn V rocket itself that took the astronauts to the moon was what was really the most amazing, and so, I devoted much of my career to developing better launch vehicles to carry satellites and people into space.

Me: I've seen Saturn Vs at Space Camp and at the Kennedy Space Center, and it's just a humungous rocket.

SI: It's huge. It's just huge.

Me: I had my dad shut his eyes when we went in to see the one at the Kennedy Space Center, and then open them once we were underneath it, just to really appreciate the size, because he'd never seen one before.

SI: Yeah.

Me: What excites you most about the future of human spaceflight? I try to ask that to every cool space person I meet.

SI: (laughs) Like my answer earlier, I think the idea that in the next ten years, we could literally have thousands of people who have experienced what it's like to be in space. I think that's a really big deal.

I also think the other thing that's a really big deal is that we will start to prove out the kinds of technologies that can actually be done, reliably and at low costs. I think the whole idea of reusing launch vehicles like we're doing in our spaceships is the holy grail of space travel. The throwing-away of these things every time you use them is never going to bring down the cost. So, I think that although we're taking a rather humble first step, I think it's a really important one, and it's quite challenging from an engineering as well as an economic standpoint.

Me: If you had to pick just one thing that you think everyone should know about your work and your company what would it be?

SI: They should know that I have the coolest job. It's the coolest job. I have the world's coolest business card. It says "Virgin", it says "Galactic", and it says "Chief Technology Officer".

Me: I will have to get one of those from you later.

SI: (laughs)

Me: I remember that I first visited the National Air and Space Museum in November 2004, and then I came back in 2007 with my 8th grade class. And I got so excited because SpaceShipOne was there, and it hadn't been there before. I got so excited. I ran underneath it, and I was geeking out, I was, like, "Do you guys know what this is? Do you guys know what this is?!?!" And then I was like, explaining "It's the first private rocket..."

SI: Right.

Me: And this one guy was looking at me and he was like, "Do you work here?" (laughs) Have you seen it there?

SI: Yes, I have, actually. It's the real vehicle. It's interesting, since that time there have been several replicas made, just because everyone finds it really cool-- it's SpaceShipOne!

Me: How does it feel to know that your company has something there in the Smithsonian, next to the Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1?

SI: Well, we hope to put more things in the Smithsonian before we're done. I hope someday I'll be able to point them out to my grandkids and tell them SpaceShipTwo was the first commercial space tourism vehicle.

Me: They have Wright Brothers Day, who knows, maybe they'll have Rutan Brothers Day someday.

[Note: Burt Rutan is the designer of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo. His group Scaled Composites ("Scaled" for short) has also created many other aircraft that set world records--often with his brother Dick at the controls!]

SI: That's right.

Me: Now, these are just personal questions, but I read Destination Space, the book Kenny Kemp wrote in 2007 about Virgin Galactic, and I have two questions related to things he said. In his--and I know this is way before your time--in his book, he said that when the Voyager that Scaled built was going around the world, someone called them and said, "I can't tell you who we are, but we take pictures of your airplane all the time, if it ever gets lost, call this number and we'll tell you where it is." Have you ever heard that story from anybody?

[Note: The Voyager was a plane built by Scaled Composites that flew around the world without refueling in 1986. (And for all of you jokers who are going "They should try a car next", the technology is completely different.)]

SI: No, I haven't.

Me: 'Cause, I was like, that can't be true, either he made it up, or the person at Scaled was egging him on, 'cause.... That's just a really weird story. I've got to ask someone at Scaled if that's true, 'cause that's--that's just really weird.

SI: Yeah.

Me: One more thing: I know that Richard Branson arranged to have the Virgin Galactic logo on the spaceship in the movie Superman Returns, and in the book it was a big deal that he was proud that they got that. So, you know I watched the movie, and you have to, like, pause it to see that it's even there. Although I liked his cameo.

SI: (laughs)

Me: I think they really screwed you guys over with that, okay? 'Cause it's really not clear that it's there, it's not clear that it's Virgin. I don't think that's fair at all.

SI: We'll have to find a new movie that will get our big logo out there.

Me: Yes. Well, thank you very much for your time.

SI: Thank you.

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