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Laguna Beach Lawyer Rides High as Astronaut

Neil Kornswiet’s career has seen him become an expert in down-to-earth business matters such as litigation claims finance, real estate finance and corporate law.

On Jan. 26, the co-owner and chief executive of Optium Capital LLC of Newport Beach knocked off a long-awaited bucket list item with a trip that was anything but down-to-earth.

Kornswiet last month was part of Tustin-based space tourism company Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc.’s (NYSE: SPCE) sixth commercial mission, and its first of 2024.

The Galactic 06 flight, which reached 55.2 miles above Earth, also marked the company’s first with private astronauts in all four passenger seats, besides the company’s commander and co-pilot.

The nearly hour-long round-trip journey, one that topped more than 2,200 miles an hour, or 2.98 Mach, made the Laguna Beach resident the first reported Orange County local to take part in the nascent space tourism industry.

“When you look down at the Earth, you see no borders or boundaries for countries,” Kornswiet told the Business Journal.

“It’s really an integrated whole. You see how thin the atmosphere is. You really do experience the Overview Effect, the term first coined by author Frank White to describe the perspective you get when viewing the Earth from space,” Kornswiet said.

“The view of the Earth from space was truly more vibrant and vivid than anything I could have imagined.”

Litigation Receivables

Kornswiet grew up in Ohio and earned a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration from the Ohio State University. Then he headed to Washington, D.C., where he earned a law degree at Georgetown University Law Center.

He joined the prestigious law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore as an associate in New York in 1983, and eventually became a partner at McKenna, Conner & Cuneo in Los Angeles.

His career would later move from law to the finance and mortgage industries; among notable roles, he served as CEO and a board member of three nationwide mortgage banking companies including Aames Financial Corporation, Managing Director of UBS in charge of residential mortgage loan origination and servicing in the United States, and a board member and president of the mortgage division of Pacific Mercantile Bank.

He founded Optium Capital in 2014.

The company, which counts about 100 employees, “specializes in the purchase of litigation receivables in large class action antitrust lawsuits.”

Optium’s goal is to provide liquidity for corporate clients “wishing to monetize hard-to-value future recoveries of class action antitrust settlements,” and invest those funds back into their core business.

The privately held company says it has worked with over 6,000 companies, many of which are Fortune 1000 companies; clients have included large department stores, restaurant chains, and e-commerce retailers that were plaintiffs in a long-running, multibillion-dollar case against credit card companies Visa and Mastercard, concerning interchange fees.

Early Sign-Up

Virgin Galactic was founded by billionaire Richard Branson in 2004, went public in 2020, moved its headquarters to Tustin in 2022, and had its first commercial launch last year.

Kornswiet was one of the first to sign up for the opportunity to fly on the company’s space vehicles, in the “2010 decade,” he said.

The waiting list for flights now stands around 800, according to the company. Other locals on the waiting list include Julie Hill, the former chair of UCI Foundation, who serves on several corporate boards.

Rides now cost $450,000 per person.

Kornswiet became Virgin Galactic’s “Astronaut 026” with the flight, which included the company’s “mothership” airplane taking the spacecraft aloft before the two separated.

Virgin Galactic is looking to boost its pace of launches and is also spending heavily to update its vehicles. It is counting on its new Delta class spacecraft to increase the number of flights and eventually push the company’s finances into the black.

Branson said in December he won’t be investing any more funds into the company as it has sufficient funds already, whose market cap slipped to $753 million as of Feb. 12 from $1.3 billion last June.

“The success of ‘Galactic 06’ and the company’s other commercial spaceflights in recent months only increases our confidence in the repeatability of our product and our ability to deliver a superlative experience to our customers,” Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said after the flight.

“With the production of our next-generation Delta-class ships underway, we look forward to expanding our flight capacity with testing expected to start next year and commercial service in 2026,” Colglazier, a former exec at Disneyland, said.

Kornswiet noted that “the entire spaceflight experience at Virgin Galactic was incredibly professional, and it absolutely prepared all of us for everything we would experience during our flight, including G forces and weightlessness.

A significant number of Virgin Galactic’s employees previously worked for NASA, and it showed; the training and medical monitoring of all of us was second to none.”

Family Cheerleaders

The Jan. 26 mission took place at Virgin Galactic’s Spaceport America facilities in New Mexico; Kornswiet’s wife, Jessica, three children, and three oldest grandkids were on hand for the launch.

What did the youngest family members think of seeing their 66-year-old grandfather flying 55 miles above the Earth in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft heading to the edge of outer space?

“They thought it was the most special thing they had ever seen,” Kornswiet said. They also loved the behind the scenes tour where they could see the actual rocket engines being tested, the actual spacecraft, and the spaceflight simulator to train the pilots.

He spoke to the Business Journal on Feb. 9 in the first news interview he has given since riding aboard Virgin Galactic’s suborbital mission.

“My wife, kids and grandkids were incredibly supportive of the trip,” he said.

Pilot Training

Kornswiet is no stranger to private flights; Kornswiet is a licensed commercial airplane pilot with thousands of flight hours under his belt.

He flies his own twin-jet Gulfstream G550, which is known as a popular and elegant private plane that races along at up to 670 miles per hour.

Of all the planes he has owned in his lifetime “this one’s my favorite,” the newly minted astronaut said.

He also noted that the views from his plane don’t compare to those on the VSS Unity flight, he said.

In addition to viewing this “little jewel” we call Earth from space, Kornswiet noted that looking in the other direction, he saw that outer space “is the blackest black you could ever imagine,” so “the Earth is even more striking and vibrant.”

“In fact, at the time of rocket motor cutoff, when all of us first looked at the Earth from space, all four of us said very similar things,” he added.

“Everyone that was looking out the window right as we were about ready to release from our safety harnesses to float around a bit said the same thing, like ‘wow’ or ‘oh, my God’ or ‘I can’t believe it’s that beautiful.’”

The Right Stuff

Neil Kornswiet’s interest in space travel goes back to the pioneering Mercury missions, including John Glenn’s historic orbiting of the Earth in 1962, when he was just a very young boy watching the launches on TV.

“I grew up being fascinated with all things space,” he said.

“I got to sit there with my parents when I was a young boy watching launches of Mercury, Gemini and then Apollo on our big-screen, 12-inch black-and-white television set,” he recalled.

He devoured every space-related book he could get his hands on, as well as science fiction by Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and others; and he was a huge fan of the 1960s TV show “Lost in Space.”

Kornswiet, who grew up in Ohio, got the opportunity to work for his childhood hero Glenn, who became a U.S. senator from that state.

It was this opportunity to do legislative research for Glenn that cemented Kornswiet’s lifelong passion for space.

The Ohio senator encouraged Kornswiet to try flying airplanes and predicted that space tourism would occur during his lifetime.

“One of the things John predicted to me was that in my lifetime I would have the opportunity to go into space,” Kornswiet said.

Glenn also told him that the trip into space will probably be very expensive, but “it will be worth a million times more than what you pay for it. It will change you forever.”

After his flight, Kornswiet said “John actually underestimated the value of the flight – it was absolutely priceless.”

His spacesuit from the just-completed Virgin Galactic flight displayed a USA flag patch as well as a patch honoring Glenn, who died in 2016.

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