Whitesides and Colglazier
George Whitesides (left) will be stepping down as chief executive of Virgin Galactic to take a new role in the company, with Disney executive Michael Colglazier taking over as CEO. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Updated 7 p.m. Eastern with comments from a company conference call.

WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic announced July 15 it is bringing in a Disney executive as the company’s new chief executive officer, with the company’s longtime chief executive moving into a new role.

Virgin Galactic announced shortly after markets closed that Michael Colglazier will become chief executive, effective July 20. Colglazier previously was president and managing director of Disney Parks International, the part of Disney that oversees its amusement parks in the United States and elsewhere.

George Whitesides, who has been chief executive of Virgin Galactic since 2010, will remain with the company, becoming its first “chief space officer” focused on future business opportunities, including point-to-point high-speed travel and orbital spaceflight. Whitesides will also serve as chair of the company’s space advisory board.

“George has been focused on driving progress in these future areas while also successfully moving the company towards commercial markets,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, chairman of Virgin Galactic, in a conference call with analysts. “By creating this new role of a chief space officer, we’re going to allow George the ability to dedicate his time and skill sets to brings these really important areas forward.”

Colglazier will focus on the suborbital spaceflight business, including the customer experience, leveraging his more than three decades of experience at Disney. “His skill set is so complementary to what we’re trying to so,” Palihapitiya said, citing a “proven track record of successfully managing and commercializing new, innovative products all around the world.”

That includes the “customer experience” for Virgin Galactic’s customers. “I’m really confident that he’s going to create an amazing customer experience for our future astronauts,” he said. “We’ve all talked about how we can create an incredible experience not just for the astronauts but everybody that comes to Spaceport America. I think Michael understands how to do that.”

The selection of Colglazier was part of a search process that lasted several months, Palihapitiya said, after he and Whitesides discussed long-term succession planning. Colglazier said he was not aware of the opportunity until he was contacted by a search firm.

“Opportunities like this one do not come along very often, and this was a truly extraordinary opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up,” he said. “Taking on the role of CEO of Virgin Galactic at this point in the company’s growth trajectory is perfectly suited to my background and experience.”

He argued that both Disney and Virgin Galactic had similar emphases on service, innovation and “delivering unique, unforgettable experiences.” He didn’t go into details about how he would implement that experience from Disney at Virgin Galactic.

“Job one is, let’s just get in and understand and learn, and I’ll be part of helping achieve the vision,” he said.

Whitesides he’ll work “side by side” with Colglazier over the next several months to help the new chief executive get up to speed, while focusing more attention on future business opportunities. The company has, in recent months, announced Space Act Agreements with NASA to develop a “private orbital astronaut readiness program” and to work on technologies for high-speed point-to-point transportation.

He didn’t give a specific timeframe for when those new markets might start generating revenue for the company. “There are some really interesting opportunities, I think, in the relatively near term,” he said, particularly on orbital spaceflight. “With this announcement today, I think I’ll be able to dedicate a lot of my energy to bringing in point-to-point.”

The company’s main suborbital spaceflight business also has yet to generate any meaningful revenue, but executives said they are getting closer to commercial operations. After the most recent SpaceShipTwo unpowered test flight June 25, Virgin Galactic announced that it would soon be ready to move into a final series of powered test flights. The company also plans to unveil the cabin interior of SpaceShipTwo in a July 28 virtual event.

“You’re going to see a drumbeat of progress here going into August and beyond. All of it is very constructive,” Palihapitiya said.

“I think it’s fair to say that we are now within spitting distance” of beginning commercial flights, he added, “and we are on a multi-month march to commercial ops.”

Palihapitiya praised Whitesides for building up the company from 30 people when he started as chief executive in 2010 to more than 900 today. That tenure included development of SpaceShipTwo, which has suffered delays and technical problems, including a 2014 crash that killed a Scaled Composites test pilot. More recently, it included a merger with Palihapitiya’s Social Capital Hedosophia last year that made Virgin Galactic a publicly traded company.

“It’s been an honor and privilege to serve as the first CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company over the last 10 years,” Whitesides said. “As we are on the cusp of achieving our next goal of commercial operations, I think now is exactly the right time for me to transition.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...