SpaceShipTwo is no space shuttle. The six-passenger, two-pilot spacecraft, currently being tested in Mojave, Calif., can’t make it into orbit, let alone fly in space for weeks at a time.
Yet the startup of the world’s first commercial spaceliner has caught the eye of NASA’s shuttle operations chief, Mike Moses.
The fast-talking, straight-shooting Moses, 43, is leaving government service to head up operations for Virgin Galactic, which plans to begin passenger suborbital spaceflights in the next year or so.
At press conferences, Moses was legendary for his thorough and patent explanations of highly technical information about the shuttle and its myriad of systems. He talks with Discovery News about his move.
Mike Moses: They had a position for their head of operations on their website and my wife is a fan of Virgin Galactic and has been following them on Twitter and Facebook and stuff. She saw that and read it and said, “Hey, this sounds a lot like what you do for shuttle.” I read it and said that it sounds pretty interesting and I knew end of shuttle was coming and so I threw my name in on a resume just to see what would come of it, not really very serious. Then we started talking over the phone and interviewing and it became pretty apparent that it would be a pretty challenging job and I would have a lot to offer to the company and it would be fun and I would enjoy it. It took about four months of talking before I finally got myself serious that I would consider the job and then it took another month for final interviews and offer negotiations before I decided to accept.
MM: I’m going to recreate what I kind of did on a different scale for the shuttle program — set up the operations team, hire the astronaut pilots, take care of training, have the spaceport operations, the runway operations, the vehicle processing — a lot of the same structure that we did for the shuttle program. Some of the reasons Virgin Galactic was very interested in hiring me was because of that rigor and experience in my background. I bring that level of knowledge to them and help them get set up on the right foot to be successful. It’s a really good deal for them and for me, both. I get to keep doing what I love and they get to take advantage of everything that’s been downloaded into my brain over the last 15 years.
MM: Ha-ha. I wish I could say. No, that is not part of the deal. We’re just talking salaries right now.
MM: If I’m going to be making her go to the desert of New Mexico, there’s probably a few things I have to throw in, yeah, you’re right.
MM: I’ll be going to Mojave for the first six to eight months, basically going to their production plant at Mojave, just getting to learn the spacecraft systems, their safety oversight systems and what (manufacturer) Scaled Composites has been doing and kind of download for me what we need to do for operations. Then sometime probably in the spring or summer we’ll move to Las Cruces (NM) to set up at the spaceport.
The timing will be hopefully, flight-testing will be going very well at Mojave and then the spaceport and the runway will be ready out at Spaceport America to move in, and we’ll go set up the team there. I kind of have to start hiring. We have a few folks onboard, and it’s up to me to go skeleton out the rest of the team. We don’t need them all right away, but I’ve seen the details of the schedules that they have — I haven’t seen the math that feeds the schedules to be able to evaluate how realistic they are — but they’re looking at still a little bit of time before they’re ready to start flying passengers so I got time to get my feet under me before we get started.
MM: It began as a lark and then when it started to get real I decided that if I’m going to consider leaving NASA I might as well look at some other companies and so I talked to the normal standard aerospace companies, but it became very apparent my heart wasn’t in much other than the Virgin Galactic job. It kind of captured me and made me think about it at night just because of what it was. It was that daily operations setup. The other jobs with the big aerospace guys were going to be big project stuff. I would have had great fun doing that, but I could have done the same thing if I had stayed with NASA. It’s a chance for me to keep doing operations so it was hard for any other job to compete with that.
MM: I’m 43.
MM: I still have a big career in front of me, hopefully. The reason I’m so excited is if this works and we get commercial, regular, routine spaceflight, even if it’s suborbital operations, that expands the number of people who are involved in the space program, the number of people who get to go up in orbit and see the Earth from above and that should hopefully seed the whole culture of the country and world to start changing our attitudes toward how important space is. Maybe that will let us get some good momentum, secure some good political backing, secure some good funding for the big giant projects.
I’m more than onboard with NASA’s plan with the SLS (heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket) and the MPCV, the Orion system (a deep-space capsule for travel beyond the space station) and what we’re doing, it’s just that the operations of that system were still eight- to 10 years away. I just couldn’t walk away from operations quite yet, so I’m going to take another shot at it here in the commercial sector.
MM: I get mixed reactions. About half the people look at me leaving as I’m insane for leaving the security of government service in this job market that we have these days. That really wasn’t a factor for me. The risk isn’t a big deal. It’s what I love everyday.
I did my homework with Virgin Galactic, and they were very open and honest about their plans and where they’re at. They’re in very good shape. They’re at the right stage to take this next step and be ready to go fully operational. It was an easy decision for me from that standpoint.
Image: Mike Moses, left, NASA’s deputy shuttle program manager, and launch director Mike Leinbach, right, at the press conference following shuttle Atlantis’ launch on July 8, 2011, to begin the final flight of the program. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett