WASHINGTON — George Whitesides, who stepped down May 7 as chief of staff to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, will take the helm at commercial space venture Virgin Galactic as the New Mexico-based company’s first chief executive.

Whitesides, who previously served on U.S. President Barack Obama’s NASA transition team and who was one of the president’s first political appointments to the space agency, is tasked with transitioning Virgin Galactic from a development project to a fully operational commercial firm.

“I am honored to be given the opportunity to lead this historic business which will open the experience of space travel to people around the world,” Whitesides, the former executive director of the National Space Society and adviser to the emerging space tourism company, said in a May 17 news release. “There is much to achieve at Virgin Galactic over the coming years as the company moves from the extensive test flying program and [Federal Aviation Administration] licensing process into commercial operation of frequent spaceflights from our new home at Spaceport America in New Mexico.”

Virgin Galactic aims to carry paying passengers to the edge of space in the air-launched SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft currently under development at Scale Composites in Mojave, Calif. SpaceShipTwo and its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft are currently undergoing testing.