Even as a young boy, I loved space. Space images decorated my walls and formed the subject matter of my earliest homework assignments (like the one pictured here produced when I was seven). Dreams of space encouraged me to read, to learn, and to understand. I had a strong desire to see more of the beautiful pictures that NASA was beaming back from space; but more than anything, I wanted to see them with my own eyes, as a NASA Astronaut.
The discovery that I needed glasses was a terrible blow. That simple medical fact disqualified me from being a NASA astronaut and I was forced to abandon my dreams. My model rockets gathered dust, and the space images came down off the walls.
Space remained more or less a forgotten thing until my first year at university when - mostly by coincidence - I joined a club called the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. SEDS helped me understand that there was much more to the space industry than just being an astronaut. Within months, I'd picked a new major, changed my career plans, and started applying for the best NASA student programs I could find. I was in love with space all over again.
I got into that NASA student program and went on to a fascinating job researching geological features on Mars. But even as I met amazing people and studied mind-expanding things, the fact that I'd never go to outer space nor see the surface of another planet with my own (admittedly imperfect) eyes rankled. At this point, humans had been exploring space for more than forty years. Why couldn't I go? For that matter, why couldn't we all go - and go often?
I discovered the potential solution to my frustrations when I learned about the Ansari XPRIZE, a $10 million competition for the first privately-funded effort to successfully fly humans to space. The idea was immediately appealing but based on the opinions of the experts in the field, it was a fool's errand - everyone I asked was convinced that not only would no one win, no one serious would even try. Thankfully, on this point, the experts were wrong. Scaled Composites, the company that has developed WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic won the prize with SpaceShipOne, the world's first privately developed manned space craft.
When SpaceShipOne first flew into space - ten years ago this summer - I was living in Thailand, working for the United Nations on a program to use satellite technology to connect impoverished people in rural areas of Southeast Asia. Even in Bangkok, half a world away from Mojave, SpaceShipOne made the front pages. People were buzzing with excitement about this new program, After all, SpaceShipOne offered the real possibility that they themselves would one day explore space - whether they had perfect vision or not!
SpaceShipOne and the promise that it represented totally reinvigorated me and so when the opportunity came to go and work for Virgin Galactic, the choice was easy. Having followed the program as closely as I could from its inception, I was eager for SpaceShipTwo to get flying. What's the holdup? I thought to myself.
Since coming on board, I've learned that what I previously viewed as a holdup was in fact the difference between building a spaceship, and building a spaceline. I'd understood what it meant to build a spaceship but I had no experience building a spaceline; there has never been a spaceline before.
I've come to absolutely love the fact that I work for a company that has a vision that extends beyond the next test or the next quarter's financial report. No one is more eager than we are to break open the space frontier by starting routine commercial flights with SpaceShipTwo - after all, our founder literally asked for a flight to space as his Christmas present last year! - but we're also devoted to building a sustainable business with a sound technological footprint. We don't just think about the next flight, we think about what happens 1,000 flights from now, when SpaceShipTwo is being operated by people who haven't even applied for jobs at our company yet. And that takes time.
That effort is all coming to fruition now. While we're careful not to make promises about our flight schedule, our most thorough projections have us flying Sir Richard to space and back before the year ends. We already have more than 700 eager customers waiting to follow in Richard's footsteps - putting us on pace to more double the number of humans who have flown to space throughout all of history based just on our pre-sales to date. We've identified the experiments that will fly on first space research flight, a group of tweleve scientific and technology payloads built by universities, start-ups, established companies, and national labs that are slated to fly onboard SpaceShipTwo. The door to the space frontier is opening.
As we've learned firsthand, there are young boys and girls out there today putting space images up on their walls and dreaming of becoming astronauts. Only now, instead of pinning up the NASA Space Shuttle, they are putting up photographs of SpaceShipTwo. And unlike what happened to me, they won't have to pull down those posters and give up that vision of flying in space the moment they first discover the need to glasses.