Virgin Galactic, the Mojave, California-based firm that aims to bring the world’s first commercial passengers to space, named Steven Isakowitz ’83, SM ’84 as its first president this week.
Isakowitz assumes the leadership role in a dubious time for non-commercial space travel. NASA, where Isakowitz recently served as deputy associate administrator, has seen its appropriations cut this year to nearly the lowest in a decade.
At the same time, Virgin Galactic’s proverbial star has risen. Founded by Richard Branson in 2004, the firm announced its 600th passenger booking for its commercial program last month. Its inaugural flight may take off as early as December.
Rumored to be among those 600 passengers, who each booked a $250,000 seat on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo: actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and pop singers Justin Bieber and Katy Perry.
“This is a transformational company and I am honored to take on this new role,” said Isakowitz. “As we chart an exciting course into the future of commercial space travel, I could not imagine a better team with which to do it.”
Isakowitz’s challenges as president will be formidable ones: leading the company through this critical first flight, negotiating rights to use the nation’s first spaceport, supporting NASA’s continuing mission, and growing its own researchers’ talents. Another challenge will be bringing that space-flight price tag down, one that certainly makes a summer vacation to Europe by contrast more appealing.
And of course, there’s safety.
“Our goal is to be the safest spaceflight vehicle in history,” Isakowitz said in a recent interview with Forbes, “but this does not equate to risk free because the safest ship is one that never leaves the harbour. We selected a vehicle that was safe by design and that has a very small number of critical systems, which supports safety through simplicity. Our system allows for a safe return for all involved even if there is an issue with the mission.”
Isakowitz joined Virgin Galactic in 2011 as its EVP and CFO. Before his work in space travel, Isakowitz served as CFO at the U.S. Department of Energy under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and as a branch chief for the White House Office of Management and Budget. He began his career as an aerospace engineer and project manager at Lockheed Martin.