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Virgin Galactic just hired a Disney theme park executive to be CEO and run its space tourism business

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Virgin Galactic just hired a Disney theme park executive to be CEO and run its space tourism business
Virgin Galactic just hired a Disney theme park executive to be CEO and run its space tourism business

Outgoing CEO George T. Whitesides will step into a new position — Chief Space Officer — and try to build a high-speed travel operation worth billions.

  • Virgin Galactic has a new CEO in Michael Colglazier, the now-former president and managing director of Disney Parks International.
  • Outgoing CEO George T. Whitesides will assume a new "Chief Space Officer" role for the company.
  • Colglazier is to run the suborbital space tourism side of the company while Whitesides pushes to leverage Virgin Galactic's growing expertise into high-speed travel and orbital spaceflight businesses.
  • Virgin Galactic's chairman said the company is "months away" from commercial launches with passengers.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Virgin Galactic, the suborbital rocket company founded by Richard Branson in 2004, has brought on a former Disney boss as CEO to operate a real-life "Space Mountain" ride.

Effective Monday, Michael Colglazier — the now-former president and managing director of Disney Parks International — will step into his new job as CEO of Virgin Galactic, according to a press release sent to Business Insider on Wednesday. Colglazier is also joining the publicly traded company's board of directors.

In his new gig, Colglazier will oversee Virgin Galactic's forthcoming space tourism business and operations. He will earn a $1 million annual salary to start, plus a performance bonus of up to 150% of his salary, generous stock options, and other benefits, according to a new 8-K filing with the SEC.

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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo "Unity" launches toward the edge of space on December 13, 2018. Virgin Galactic; MarsScientific.com/Trumbull Studios

After 16 years of spaceship research and development, Virgin Galactic is shifting its focus to operations — and making good on its promise to fly people to the edge of space for $200,000 or more per seat. Colglazier's experience is expected to make those rides the luxury experience customers will expect.

"I am thrilled to join the talented team at Virgin Galactic at this inflection point in the Company's journey," Colglazier said in the release. "Like so many others, including hundreds of signed-up customers, I have been inspired by this purpose-driven, world-class brand and the incredible opportunity it offers to open space to change the world for good." 

George T. Whitesides, Virgin Galactic's former CEO since 2010, is stepping down from his old executive role and the board of directors. However, Whitesides, who arrived at Virgin Galactic after serving as NASA's chief of staff, is not leaving the company. Instead, he'll be its first "Chief Space Officer."

Meet Virgin Galactic's new 'Chief Space Officer'

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George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, stands inside Virgin Galactic's new LauncherOne facility in Long Beach, California, on March 6, 2015. Bob Riha, Jr./Virgin Galactic via Getty Images

In the newly created executive role, Whitesides will focus on "developing the Company's future business opportunities, including point-to-point hypersonic travel and orbital space travel," the company said. Those new avenues could become multi-billion-dollar businesses, Whitesides has said. He will also chair the Virgin Galactic's Space Advisory Board.

Virgin Galactic is entering a final phase of testing and regulatory clearances before it starts flying passengers, which explains the C-suite transition. The company has seen numerous setbacks, including a crash that killed a test pilot, in achieving its goal of routine civilian spaceflight, which Branson had predicted would start more than a decade ago. Virgin Galactic plans to unveil the interior design of its centerpiece suborbital rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, later this month.

Colglazier said on a Wednesday conference call with investors that he'd always dreamed of becoming an astronaut as a kid and that he "is going to be flying" on SpaceShipTwo in the future.

In a recent interview, Whitesides said Virgin Galactic hopes to claim a fraction of the airline industry's premium long-haul travel business, which totals about $300 billion a year.

"If we can just capture 5% or something like that, then it's still a huge number. I mean, $10 to $15 billion of revenue is is a massive opportunity," Whitesides told Business Insider in May, adding that he believes people will pay to travel faster in smaller vehicles. "The things that we're working on are very much part of our aviation future."

The field for such operations is wide open, given that the supersonic airliner Concorde retired in 2003. That's not to say it will be easy or inexpensive to reclaim, improve, and expand. But Whitesides thinks Virgin Galactic is up to the challenge, even in the face of prior failures to create new supersonic and even hypersonic passenger vehicles.

"The words 'many companies have tried' is music to my ears," Whitesides has said. "People said we couldn't build up human spaceflight company. People say we couldn't go public."

In a statement, Branson lauded both men for taking on the new roles:

"I want to thank George for his outstanding leadership of Virgin Galactic over the last decade. He has shown dedication and determination as its first CEO to build the Company from early stage development through to space flight, the first from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle. In the past year, George has taken the Company public and moved it to Spaceport America. He transitions into his new role as Chief Space Officer having created substantial value as CEO and with Galactic poised for an exciting next chapter."

"At the same time, we are delighted to welcome Michael as the new Chief Executive to lead Galactic into commercial operations. I believe Michael's long and distinguished career at one of the world's leading customer experience brands provides a natural fit with Virgin's culture as well as Galactic's requirements as it prepares for commercial service."

During Wednesday's call, Chamath Palihapitiya, chairman of Virgin Galactic, said Colglazier's skills and experience in building multi-billion-dollar consumer-facing businesses is exactly what the company needs to move forward as customers and their families begin traveling to Spaceport America in the deserts of New Mexico for once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

In his statement, Palihapitiya also hinted that Virgin Galactic could see its first passenger flight — that of Branson himself — before the end of 2020.

"[Colglazier will] be, frankly, an invaluable addition to our company as we are now within months of commercial operations," Palihapitiya said. "I'm really confident he's going to create an amazing customer experience for our future astronauts. ... 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."

This story has been updated with new information.

Read the original article on Business Insider
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