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Saturday, Dec 2, 2023

OC Exec Sees Higher Meaning in Space Ride

Future astronaut Julie Hill believes some flyers with Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. may be into the nascent space tourism industry for the high-priced thrills, but she’s found a higher meaning.

“There’s a very spiritual aspect,” the Newport Coast resident and longtime local business leader said of space travel.

That includes a spectacular view of the fragile Earth and its graceful curvature.

“To me, it is a way of reminding ourselves how fragile life is,” said the 77-year-old Hill, who urges women to overcome obstacles as she has always done.

“There is something about our ability to look back where there are no state boundaries, there are no perceptions of race and be able to see us as one set of humanity.”

Hill and her brother, rocket engineer Jeffrey Kincaid, were relatively early sign-ups for Virgin Galactic (NYSE: SPCE), getting spots Nos. 212 and 213 on the now Tustin-based company’s list for a mere $250,000 per seat more than a decade ago.

Each seat on a Virgin Galactic flight now costs $450,000 (see story, this page).

“I’m just fascinated with the whole idea. I’ve been a bit of a risk-taker in my career and personal life,” Hill told the Business Journal on July 14.

Hill became the first female chair of the UCI Foundation and has served on the corporate boards of several companies in the healthcare and finance industry along with a wide range of executive roles.

Virgin Galactic said its space tourism era will officially get underway next month.

That’s when its first truly private mission, Galactic 02, will be launched on Aug. 10 or the days thereafter, depending on the weather.

Seeking Profits

Virgin Galactic will release its earnings for the second quarter on Aug. 1, about a week and a half or two weeks before the launch of Galactic 02.

The company went public in 2019 and once counted a market valuation of about $15 billion. It was valued at about $1.1 billion as of July 17.

Getting paying customers into space is the key to making the company profitable; Virgin reported a $500 million loss last year.

The company’s shares have lost almost half their value in the last year, falling from $7.23 apiece to $3.75 each as of July 17.

Virgin moved its headquarters last year to a 61,000-square-foot office at the Flight office campus in Tustin.

It has since taken additional space there.
Revenue is expected to soar this year with private flights beginning in earnest, growing from $2.3 million in 2022 to $11.6 million this year, according to the average estimate of nine analysts on Yahoo Finance.

The analysts expect another fourfold increase to $42.4 million in 2024.

Virgin Galactic, which was founded in 2004 by British billionaire Richard Branson, faces competition from other upstart private space companies including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.

Flight Path

Virgin Galactic hopes to ultimately build up to 400 flights a year.

The passengers will be wearing custom-made blue flight suits aboard the suborbital flights that take about 90 minutes total as the spacecraft heads upward more than 50 miles from Earth.

The flights will take off from Spaceport America, about 180 miles south of Albuquerque, N.M., giving customers several minutes of weightlessness.

Virgin Galactic’s specially constructed, twin-fuselage carrier airplane, named VMS Eve, will take flight with the VMS Unity spaceship attached; once they reach around 44,000 feet, the VMS Unity blasts off, taking the passengers and pilots upward toward space.

The spacecraft glides back for a landing much like commercial airliners.

VMS Unity can hold up to six people: four passengers and two pilots.

Skydiving, Black Diamond

For Hill, the future ride will be one more milestone in a life that has taken her from executive roles to board memberships at Columbia Care and $240 billion mutual fund complex Lord, Abbett & Co. LLC.

She was the first woman board member on Fortune 50 company Anthem. She was the first female CEO of the U.S. operations of Costain, a London-based international construction, mining and engineering company.

She was also the only woman corporate board member on the Sydney-based Lend Lease Corp.

Hill has also been an entrepreneur and founded her own land development and investment company in the 1990s.

“I’ve always tried to take on things that I didn’t know whether I could do them or not,” she said, always ready for a new adventure.

That includes skydiving and heading down a Black Diamond ski run.

Hill, who just turned 77, said she expects to fly on Virgin Galactic somewhere in two to three years from today.

“For about 13 years, I’ve been saying it’s one year from whatever year it is right now,” she said. She said a shift in the roster is always possible.

Age isn’t a barrier: Virgin Galactic said last week that 80-year-old Jon Goodwin will be on the upcoming flight next month.

The question comes whether Virgin Galactic ride is primarily for celebrities and rich people who want to do something exciting and different.

“Well, there’s a lot of truth in that, right?” she answered.

She acknowledged that some may call it frivolous or thrill-seeking. “I don’t want to dodge that. That’s out there. Everybody’s got different motivations.”

Say Yes

“I say to young women ‘say yes at the door, because otherwise the door is never opened and otherwise you don’t know what you can do,” she said.

“In my mind this was kind of an extension of that, that women should be able to do this,” according to Hill.

“You’re probably most alive when you’re pushing yourself the hardest.”

Ultimately, she said companies such as Virgin Galactic can help “democratize space” by allowing more people to go up into space.

She and her brother have done training on their own in preparation, including ways to keep blood flowing in their heads as the spaceship rockets off.

Her very pragmatic reason: “For $250,000 I do not want to pass out.”

Flight Training

She and the other Virgin Galactic astronauts will be told a year out when they are going, and the training will take place at the Spaceport America in New Mexico, where the Tustin-based firm is the largest tenant.

The three-day program focuses on physical, procedural and mental aspects of heading aloft.

The astronauts also get medical check-ups before flying.

Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier told analysts in May that when it comes to reservations, the company has “a three-plus year backlog already with the 800 or so that we have.”

A three-man crew from Italy flew almost ­53 miles above the New Mexico desert on June 29 aboard a Virgin Galactic rocket-powered spacecraft, the company’s first flight of paying customers to the edge of space.

They made the suborbital ride with three Virgin Galactic crew members, two of whom piloted the vehicle, VSS Unity, once it was launched from underneath the twin-fuselage carrier plane.

The flight marked a long-delayed breakthrough for Virgin Galactic, which started commercial service almost 20 years after the company’s founding.

Astronauts or
Just High-Flyers?

Determining just who is a member of the elite astronaut club is more difficult than it sounds.

Many experts say soaring 50 miles (80 kilometers) or more above the Earth makes you an astronaut, though there is plenty of debate on that point.

Then there is the even higher Kármán Line, an internationally recognized boundary of space between the Earth’s atmosphere and space.

“Where does space begin? For purposes of spaceflight some would say at the Kármán line, currently defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles).

Others might place a line 80 kilometers (50 miles) above Earth’s mean sea level. But there is no sharp physical boundary that marks the end of atmosphere and the beginning of space,” space agency NASA says on its website.

NASA is famed for sending its astronauts into outer space orbits on journeys far beyond where the private companies have been venturing.

No matter the technicalities, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. calls its flyers astronauts after taking them higher than 50 miles above Earth.

$5,000 Per Minute to Fly
With Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.’s customers may be called space tourists, but you’ve got to be a pretty well-heeled tourist to afford the price.

First, you submit your Spaceflight Application and place a $10,000 temporary credit card authorization, the Tustin-based company says on its website.

Once your application is accepted, you’ll be invited to discuss details and questions in a personal phone call with Virgin Galactic’s Astronaut Office.

“If you decide to make a firm reservation, you will then complete preliminary paperwork and pay the full $150,000 deposit. At that point, your journey to space will be confirmed and you’ll be officially welcomed into our global Future Astronaut community,” according to its website.

The $300,000 balance is due in the year before you fly, bringing the total to $450,000 per seat.

With an estimated total flight time of approximately 90 minutes, that works out to $5,000 per minute.

About 3 ½ minutes of that time is spent floating around weightless at the ride’s highest point.

The company’s advertising brochure on the website is upbeat:

“This is your opportunity to be among the founding Virgin Galactic astronauts. Your reservation includes more than a spaceflight.

You’ll enjoy a Future Astronaut community membership, a multiday training and preparation retreat at Spaceport America with family and friends, bespoke flight wear, astronaut insignia, photographs and video, opportunities to give back to future generations and more.”

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