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How Virgin Galactic Is Turning Moon Shots into Reality: An Interview with Stephen Attenborough

18 September 2019 By Marc Rodt

When it comes to commercializing space travel, innovation takes on a whole new meaning. How can such a huge, complex, and bold effort be managed? What are the unique challenges involved, and how might they be surmounted? In what ways could success in this effort change our lives? To explore these and other questions, Stephen Attenborough, commercial director of Virgin Galactic—the world’s first spaceline—met with Marc Rodt, partner and director, Center for CFO Excellence. Their conversation offers valuable insights for any organization seeking to innovate in the face of extra-high stakes and daunting unknowns.  

About Stephen Attenborough

Commercial Director, Virgin Galactic

Stephen joined Virgin Galactic as its first full-time employee in 2004, with responsibility for laying the commercial foundations and framework for the organization, including spearheading ongoing sales, business development, marketing, public relations, licensing, partnerships, and customer retention initiatives.

Prior to joining Virgin Galactic, Stephen worked for Gartmore Investment Management, a major London-based investment management firm. At Gartmore, his roles focused on the company’s relationship with sophisticated institutional and high-net-worth clients and prospective clients.

Thank you very much for being with us today to talk about space travel and innovation. Virgin Galactic is the world’s first spaceline. What does that mean?

We call ourselves a spaceline deliberately, because it has a feel of the future but also a feel of familiarity because of the word “airline.” What we’re seeking to do is to commercialize—to democratize—space travel. Although we’ve been going to space for 50 or 60 years, the road to space is still very narrow. It’s like a treacherous footpath. What we’re trying to do, and what the new commercial space industry is trying to do, is broaden that footpath into a highway that is available to everybody. In time, we hope to be flying on a very regular basis, with a fleet of spaceships, and then we can truly call ourselves a spaceline.

Why go to space?

The access that we’ve had to space in the last 50 or 60 years has transformed many areas of our lives, including navigation, communication, weather forecasting, farming, and logistics.

We need to make even better use of space. And we’re only going to be able to do that if we transform the way of getting there. As the private sector comes into this space—using all that incredible investment and commitment and sacrifice that has gone before, but building on that with new reusable vehicles—something really great is starting to happen.

In the future, perhaps we’ll see space-based solar power stations. Perhaps we’ll get our minerals and other elements that we need from space rather than from Earth. Perhaps we’ll have people in heavy industry working and living in space, so we can really start to preserve this beautiful planet for our generation and for future generations.

Are you confident that there will be enough demand for a spaceline?

When I speak, I ask people: If the ticket price was not an issue, and if you were relatively happy that you were going to come back safely, how many people would like to go to space? It is generally a 95% absolute emphatic yes. We’re getting on for 700 reservations. We ask for the full amount upfront, and the ticket has been $250,000, so our belief is that this is a huge market.

What have been the successes and challenges for Virgin Galactic?

If I can sum up my experience of the last 14 or 15 years in a single word, it would be “challenging.” Space is hard. We’re looking to do something that has never been done before. We believe we’re doing it with a very strong sense of purpose, but that doesn’t make it easier. We’re taking people at a very high speed into a fundamentally hostile environment. We need to have a vehicle that will do that thousands of times. It needs to keep those people safe, of course; that is the number one priority. It also needs to give them a great time. And so, everything you do when you’re building spaceships tends to be a little bit harder than you think it’s going to be.

My other big lesson, though, is that when you start off on a journey that takes some courage, that takes some perseverance, but most important, has a strong sense of purpose, it’s amazing how many people want to come and join that journey, to make it easier.

A third point connected to the second point is that I have become a very strong believer in telling the story, warts and all. We announced Virgin Galactic very early, and we have told the story ever since. I think because of that, we’ve had people come along to help us—our staff, our partners, but also our customers.

Right at the beginning, we took the decision to make reservations available. We did it because we wanted to make sure that there was a readily available market at a commercially sensible price, because nobody had sold space tickets before. We found that a lot of people wanted to go. They have come from very diverse backgrounds. They have become our strongest ambassadors. They have often made sure that we are developing a product that I think is much better than if we hadn’t had their help and advice along the way.

On the bad days—and everybody has bad days—those people are your strongest supporters. And the product that you end up with is much better because of them.

The innovation projects that you undertake are bold and complex. What’s required to manage these types of projects successfully?

We manage this Virgin Galactic project like any other business. We are very focused on timelines; we’re very focused on schedules. We try and work as smartly as possible. But on top of that, we have a set of values, which I think sets us apart a little.

First, Virgin has always historically gone into businesses where there is some interest on behalf of the owner and where the current incumbents have become lazy or complacent—they’re serving their customers badly. Space is an incredible example of that.

It’s important to have this sense of purpose: not just the what and the how, but the why. We do believe that we’re planting seeds that will grow into trees and will bear fruit, which I will probably never see.

That makes the day job incredibly fulfilling—not just for me, but for all the engineers and the technicians and the operations people working alongside me to get this first part of our business into operation.

The other thing is that you know where it could lead. Space is very much a journey rather than a destination. Virgin has always loved airlines. That’s one of the reasons that we chose the system we did for our first spaceship: it has wings, and it takes off from a runway and lands on a runway. It’ll give us the experience we need to build something in the future that could take off here in London and land in Australia maybe in an hour and half via space.

That is very exciting, not just because it’ll cut journey times down dramatically and connect the world like never before. It’s also exciting because it will do so with just a fraction of the environmental footprint that we currently have from the commercial aviation sector.

Where would you, personally, like to see this go in the long term?

I think we’re at the dawn of a new space age. When I used to go around and talk to space experts about the commercial sector, about private companies that could take people or a payload into space, we weren’t taken terribly seriously. Now, we’re taken extremely seriously. So I think that our personal lives and our business lives are going to be transformed by this new space age.

When I look at Virgin, we have a great heritage of commercial aviation. So I think we would love to be involved in whatever way in point-to-point transcontinental travel. The world has had a hotel in space for the last 20 years called the International Space Station. So we know that we can run orbital habitats. We’ve had people on that space station continuously throughout that whole period. Rather than go to space for a few minutes, go for a couple of weeks. It would be a great honeymoon location!

We also have a sister company that is trying to do what we’re doing for human space flight for small satellites. Arrays of small satellites can also have an enormous impact on daily life. For example, more people don’t have internet access than do. Just being able, through large arrays of small satellites, to give those people cheap and powerful access to the internet—the social and financial impacts of that are huge.

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How Virgin Galactic Is Turning Moon Shots into Reality: An Interview with Stephen Attenborough

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