With a career at NASA and in the commercial space industry that has spanned nearly 30 years, Mike Moses ’91 M.S. has met plenty of astronauts. No matter the nature of their mission, or their country of origin, or how long they were in space, all of them, he said, returned with a new perspective on Earth made possible by what so few of us have seen: our planet from more than 50 miles above it.
Moses is making it his mission to broaden that group. “It’s going to be great to be able to deliver that to others,” he said in an interview at Florida Tech in late September, when he was on campus as the headliner at the F. Alan Smith Distinguished Lecture.
The name of his presentation? The Expanding Influence of Private Commercial Human Spaceflight.
At the space launch company Virgin Galactic since 2011, where he is president of space missions and safety, Moses is witnessing and helping to shape the nascent space tourism industry. Leading the company’s human spaceflight efforts, he is bullish on the eventual democratization of space tourism, where a $450,000 ticket on his company’s SpaceShipTwo Unity is among the most affordable suborbital experiences currently offered.
“It’s an exciting job,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibilities, but it hits exactly what I’m passionate about: The operations side of human spaceflight, the management and the safety that you have to do to be good at that, as well as just the personal delivery of something that can be transformative and life-changing.”
Moses said his educational experience at Florida Tech was critical for his professional success.
“It really prepared me. Everything was targeted very practically. It wasn’t just academics for the sake of academics,” he said of his degree program. “The other big thing was just the comprehensiveness of the degree. When I came here, all of the years of undergraduate work kind of clicked for me and it started to make sense. That’s really served me well in my career.”
Guided by a mission purpose of “space for all” at Virgin Galactic, Moses is passionate about expanding access. But he realizes we are not there yet, and that not everyone can afford the journey.
“That’s a dichotomy, right? Because it’s a very expensive endeavor. And the initial ticket prices are high. There are also some medical considerations,” he said. “Not everybody can fly. There’s all that stuff that comes with it. So how do we tackle that?”
The most seismic force to push prices lower will be the sustained success and rising frequency of space tourism. This is why Virgin Galactic is developing a fleet of reusable spaceships. With that fleet, they can offer more flights. That allows the cost of the ships to be covered, and then the earnings become profit.
“And that profit turns into lower ticket prices,” Moses said. “One of the great things about our market is the lower we can drive the price, the more people can go. And that just feeds itself. The economies of scale kick in very quickly.”
Moses noted that the power of the journey can affect those not on the trip, too.
“The more people that get to make space part of their life, whether they go or they know someone who goes, or a family member has gone – the more people that do that, the more we start to transform society and the way people think about space access and what space does for the local economy, the earth-based societies,” he said. From space, “you don’t see borders. You don’t see conflicts. You see a fragile atmosphere below you, and you realize how important it is to protect it and not mess up what we have here on Earth.”
Now picture the trajectory of these flights: basically up and then down. But what if you laid that vertical trajectory flat? That could mean flying from one side of the planet to the other in an hour or so. That also will not be inexpensive initially, but it’s an important potential development in what Moses called “space for Earth.”
“So you can go to space to do science and research and exploration and operations to continue to explore space. That’s space for space. Or you can use it as a platform to develop things that apply back here on Earth. Suborbital technologies are an example of that,” he said. “Lay that trajectory flat, and now travel point-to-point. Now we’re revolutionizing travel back here on Earth.”
“I think we’ll see commercial space start to tackle that pretty soon.”