Virgin Galactic (SPCE) named Michael Colglazier, the head of Disney’s international parks, its new CEO on Wednesday. Colglazier will replace George Whitesides, a NASA and FAA veteran who has led the company since 2010 as Virgin Galactic grew from a couple dozen employees to more than 900, working to build and test it’s rocket-powered suborbital space plane.

Whitesides will take on the role of “Chief Space Officer” at Galactic, the company said, where he’ll focus on overseeing the development of technologies further down Galactic’s pipeline, including a supersonic passenger jet.

The leadership change-up is meant to allow Virgin Galactic to “do more” now that its tourism spacecraft is nearly ready to fly its first paying customers, incoming CEO Colglazier told Wall Street analysts during a conference call Wednesday.

“I think it’s fair to say that we are now within spitting distance” of beginning commercial operations, Colglazier said. “This company is continuing on its path.”

Virgin Galactic, which was founded two decades ago by British billionaire Richard Branson, has worked for years developing and testing its space tourism vehicle, dubbed SpaceShipTwo. The company recovered from a lethal testing accident in 2014 and has since flown two test flights into the upper atmosphere, mimicking the ride tourists will take.
Colglazier comes to Galactic after spending nearly 30 years at Disney. He most recently oversaw operations of the media giant’s theme parks in Paris, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tokyo. He’s exiting the role as Disney’s parks business took a multibillion-dollar hit after the Covid-19 pandmeic forced theme parks to shut down for months.

On a call announcing the executive change, analysts asked Colglazier about his unexpected transition from Disney park executive to leading a novel, high-risk business that’s still in its commercial infancy.

Virgin Galactic has its eye on supersonic flights — and there's a difficult road ahead

“I’ve had a long career working in an industry that is all about safety and delivering customer experiences a safe way,” Colglazier said. “Obviously aerospace is a different technology. So that’s why I’ll be diving deep…That is part of my learning process.”

Whitesides added that Colglazier “brings enormous experience in building customer experiences.”

Virgin Galactic recently announced two new partnerships with NASA. One, announced in June, will see the company help NASA train tourists and scientists who opt to pay for the much more dangerous and expensive journey of flying into Earth’s orbit. (Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo is only capable of suborbital flight, meaning it will take hour-long flights into the upper atmosphere, but it does not go fast enough to enter orbit.)

SpaceX and Boeing have both developed spacecraft capable of carrying paying customers and NASA astronauts on days-long trips in orbit or months-long stays aboard the International Space Station.

Virgin Galactic also has a cost-sharing agreement with NASA to develop a supersonic passenger plane that could shuttle people between cities at speeds not seen since Europe’s Concorde aircraft retired in 2003, though Virgin Galactic’s supersonic aircraft is likely a long way from reality.

But, Whitesides said, “I think that there are opportunities to begin, generating revenue through that [program] — maybe earlier than a commercial operation, whether it’s government related activities or otherwise.”

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