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A launchpad for dream job

Santa Clarita resident, engineer works on commercial spacecraft for Virgin Galactic’s The Spaceship

Posted: March 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 25, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Joe Brennan sitting inside the captain’s cockpit of the SpaceShip Two cabin prototype. The mockup shell is structurally identical to the flight-ready space ships in terms of dimensions, materials, parts and sizes.

 


Joe Brennan had just reached a period of calm in his life, when a recruiter contacted him about the most exciting job possibility he could ever have imagined.

A mechanical engineer with an MBA, Brennan came home from work one day to find an email from a recruiter asking if he was interested in a new position.

When the Santa Clarita resident saw the job description and location, Brennan said he knew at once who the recruiter was working for — Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company.

Branson is building the first commercial space travel company for private passengers to fly where only astronauts have gone before.

“I thought there’s no way they would pick me for that position,” Brennan said. “But that’s the coolest job ever. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”

At the time, Brennan was working for a composites manufacturer in the San Diego area, where he helped produce prototypes and products for the aerospace and defense industry. Prior to that, he worked for Boeing at its Seattle plant, he said.

Brennan was incredibly excited, and had trouble sleeping throughout the weeks-long interview process, he said.

The problem with sleeping was not related to nerves, however. Brennan immediately began thinking about how he would go about building the first assembly plant to send ordinary citizens, for the price of a very expensive ticket — into outer space.

It was a complete dream job, he said. But first, he had to land the director of production operations job for The Spaceship Company, founded by Branson’s Virgin Group in a joint venture with Scaled Composites.

Interview process

The recruiter had been working with other candidates before Brennan, he said. And when the recruiter contacted him by e-mail the message was clear: “time is of the essence” it read.

Round one of the many interviews was with the recruiter. Every time Brennan found out he was moving to the next stage of interviews, he couldn’t sleep, he said. About a week later, a phone interview followed. Then came one of the big interviews — the company wanted to meet with Brennan in Mojave.

“I felt like I was winning the lottery,” he said.

Coming out of that onsite interview, Brennan was given a homework assignment. He needed to develop a proposal describing how he would go about setting up a new production facility.

And to go after the most exciting job in his life, Brennan was only allowed one page to outline his proposal.

“I created a poster instead with images and floor plans,” he said. “I really tried to push the envelope on what they were looking for.”

Two weeks later, Brennan was asked to come back for a final job interview. Throughout the process, he still felt like he must be an underdog, he said, but the job was too big and the project was too cool for him not to follow through.

Within a week of the final interview, Brennan was offered the job of his life.

“I resigned from my other job as soon as I had an offer.”

Not status quo

After earning a mechanical engineering degree, Brennan took a job with Boeing working on what would become the aerospace company’s 787 plane.

He wanted to get into the field of aerospace, more specifically composites — fabricated materials that are stronger and lighter weight than their metal counterparts.

Composites allow any vehicle — whether for the roads or space — to go faster, farther and carry more, Brennan said.

After working at Boeing, Brennan realized he wanted to work at a smaller company that would give him a broader perspective so he accepted a job at Quatro Composites in the San Diego area.

“At Boeing, you see one tiny little piece,” he said. “In San Diego I could see and learn the whole picture.”

That desire to better know the world of aerospace may have been what landed Brennan the job with Branson at The Spaceship Company.

His background, work experience and two degrees certainly helped, Brennan said. But Virgin also looks for ambitious, creative, optimistic people who don’t confine themselves to the status quo. Brennan feels most likely he was found to be a good “cultural fit” for the company.

Building space ships

Brennan commutes daily from his Saugus home to one of two production factories that have been built at Virgin Galactic’s The Spaceship Company.

The privately funded venture employs 130 people ready to build two WhiteKnight motherships and five SpaceShips.

The WhiteKnight motherships, currently among the world’s largest all-composite aircraft, are designed to carry the spaceships up to 50,000 feet where the rocket motors on the spaceships ignite and launch the passenger vehicles into space. The spaceships are designed to carry two pilots and six passengers, Brennan said.

“We’ve got some of the best people,” Brennan said. “They’re from the NASA, flight programs and the aerospace community.

More than 10,000 resumes were reviewed. The team we’ve been able to assemble is world class.”

The first set of vehicles is in flight test mode at Scaled Composites, he said. They both fly, but haven’t completed all of their testing, yet. Once everyone knows the vehicle designs are safe and what the final building specifications are, The Spaceship Company will be able to finish building the first vehicles for private space travel.

Virgin Galactic spends millions each year in the development phase. The company is taking baby steps, Brennan said. Every test is a stretch from the last one, but it needs to be done safely. The company received a $230 million startup investment.

As for when space tourists will be able to begin booking flights, Brennan said the company doesn’t know yet. A venture like this has never been done before, but if someone doesn’t try it, no one will ever know how to make it work.

“Compared to the government programs, like NASA, which spend billions per year, we can be more cost effective because private industry can be more efficient,” he said.

Virgin Galactic fosters innovation, fun in the workplace and work-life balance, Brennan said.

But is that enough to keep this local resident commuting that great a distance every day?

Dream job

“It’s a dream job,” Brennan said. “I absolutely couldn’t be happier.”

The company has the advantage of being part of a big conglomerate under Virgin Galactic and Branson’s many other companies, but the people have a lot of liberty with the way we set up The Spaceship Company, he said.

“Any constraints are self-imposed.”

Being part of the Virgin family provides the employees with a great resource and leverage, without having any of the traditional hurdles put on startups, he said.

“We’re encouraged to challenge the business model. Part of the Virgin culture is to challenge the status quo.”

Asked what it’s like to work at The Spaceship Company, Brennan said it feels like they are pioneers and he immediately gives credit to the people who laid the groundwork for the venture, Burt Ratan and Branson.

“It feels really cool. The world is watching, and the world is excited,” he said. “It’s motivating.”

For anyone wishing to book their first flight into space, deposits start at $20,000 with tickets costing $200,000. Flights can be booked with Virgin Galactic at www.virgingalactic.com/booking.

jadkins@the-signal.com

661-287-5599

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