Virgin Galactic brings on Disney Parks leader Michael Colglazier as new CEO

Darrell Etherington

Virgin Galactic is shuffling its uppermost leadership ahead of the private space tourism company's commercial service launch: It just announced Michael Colglazier, who had been president and managing director of Disney Parks International, will join as the new Virgin Galactic CEO, replacing George Whitesides, who will assume the newly created position of chief space officer.

Whitesides said on Twitter that the move is in anticipation of the company's move to debut its commercial service. Virgin Galactic is in the final test flight stages at its operational spaceport in New Mexico. It has already flown unpowered test flights of its launch vehicle carrier aircraft and the SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, and will next move to powered flight tests prior to kicking off flights for its paying ticket-holders.

Whitesides was the first CEO of both Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company (a subsidiary formed specifically to focus on Virgin spacecraft manufacture). Virgin Galactic was originally founded by Richard Branson, who also provided significant funding to the company ahead of its public debut last year via a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) created by Chamath Palihapitiya specifically for the purpose.

Colglazier's experience at Disney in the Parks department should be a clear signal about the direction Virgin Galactic is headed with its human spaceflight business. The company has always put a lot of emphasis on the overall "experience" it provides its private space tourists, including ground activities and training, and installing an executive who was responsible for one of the world's foremost "experience"-based tourism operations is a smart move.

The background of departing CEO Whitesides is very different: He was chief of staff at NASA prior to joining Virgin Galactic in 2010, and his new position as chief space officer, as well as chair of the company's Space Advisory Board, does seem to make a lot more sense, given his experience, relative to the company's goals as an ongoing, revenue-generating business. Whitesides will also step down from the Virgin Galactic board of directors as part of this shift, and Colglazier will join that guidance body.

The executive changes take effect on July 20, the company says. It reports its next results on August 3, and while it now looks like we'll probably have to wait until next year to see it begin its first commercial tourist flights, it's likely that the status of its program and progress will be in focus.

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