george whitesides has a ticket to ride


George Whitesides [Intermediate Student '87-'88] has a ticket to ride a rocketship.

This is not a ‘hypothetical’ ticket on a ‘speculative’ rocketship for an ‘undetermined’ date. Whitesides’ ticket is for the rocket SpaceShipTwo. In 2009, his flight (not ‘launch’ but, yes, ‘flight,’ complete with runway takeoff and landing) will leave from Mojave Spaceport in California. Roughly two and half hours later, it will land in New Mexico.

And on that day, Whitesides, along with his wife and four other passengers, will experience things that until now have been reserved solely for scientists and professional astronauts: the force of four G’s of rocket fuel at his back, a climb through the atmosphere, weightlessness in zero-gravity…a view of Earth, the moon, and the sun from outer space.

“We bought a couple tickets on Virgin Galactic,” Whitesides says. “It’s for our honeymoon.”George Whitesides

Whitesides, it must be said, is not just any Joe with an office job and a boyhood fascination with outer space. He is, in fact, the Executive Director of the National Space Society (NSS), the country’s largest space advocacy organization, with more than 50 chapters and 20,000 members. As the head of this Washington-based group, Whitesides gives key-note speeches, meets with congressmen, is quoted in virtually every space-related news article put to press, and generally advocates for the NSS’s mission: to expand civilization beyond Earth, to settle space, and to use its resources carefully and for humanity’s betterment.

The spaceship Whitesides will be flying in is the world’s first commercial spacecraft and is the handiwork of Burt Rutan, designer of the SS2 and one of the world’s premier rocket scientists, and Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur whose Virgin Group bought the design and made it a part of its air fleet.

The aircraft itself consists of two parts – a mothership the size of a 757 and the 60-foot SS2, which the mothership (called the WhiteKnight) carries on its underside. The WK takes off from a traditional runway and climbs to 50,000 feet, at which point it releases the SS2 into freefall. The SS2’s hybrid motor then ignites, accelerating the rocket at the aforementioned four G’s to a velocity around one kilometer per second – or roughly three times the speed of sound.

With this burst, the rocket exhausts its fuel supply and coasts to its ascent at a suborbital level in space. It is at this point that Whitesides and the others aboard, looking out the SS2’s 15 floor, ceiling, and wall windows, will experience a view of the Earth only seen in school textbooks and science museums.

“What’s exciting is that it finally looks like regular people are going to start flying in space,” Whitesides says. “That is going to fundamentally transform humanity’s relationship with space. We’ve gotten conditioned to the idea that only astronauts go, or scientists, or the super-rich. Somewhere along the line, the government forgot that people’s real interest in space is going themselves.”

The possibility of this – space travel for the masses – seems to most people remote and far-off, at best. At worst, it’s looked at as fanciful, dangerous, expensive, and irrelevant to the contemporary political discussion. Whitesides, aware of this, describes interest in the cosmos as “a mile long and an inch deep.”

What's exciting is that it finally looks like regular people are going to start flying in space“Everybody thinks space is cool,” Whitesides says. “And I think most people actually think space is important, but do they think it’s as important as health care or Iraq? Generally speaking, no. The challenge is fitting it into the debates of the day and making the argument that space needs to be one of our priorities.”

Whitesides and many others in the field of space exploration envision and predict a future where humanity will rely on space’s resources – minerals found on nearby celestial bodies, as well as its physical area – in order to sustain an expansive human population with finite and dwindling terrestrial resources. Far from an opportunity to exploit the great beyond, the new reality of space travel is, for Whitesides, a chance to consider humanity’s future and actively craft it.

“At a certain point,” Whitesides says, “we’re going to reach a tipping point for going to space—because it’s cheap enough, because they find something that’s like gold there, for whatever reason. The more we can do now in terms of asking the question, ‘As we go out, what do we want to bring with us?’ – that to me is the most interesting question.”

article update: george joins nasa

March 2009—At the end of 2008, Whitesides stepped down as Executive Director of the National Space Society (NSS) to take the position of Senior Advisor at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). After the 2008 national election, he was part of a NASA transition team for the incoming Obama administration, and since the inauguration, has continued on in his new role.