The endless space has always enticed us humans, with endless possibilities and opportunities. The mere thought that there might be people like us or different from us sharing this universe, is enough to get one excited to explore. With the kind of development we have been making in science and technology, it doesn’t sound a distant dream that one will be able to plan a vacation to Moon or Mars.
However, before a dream comes true, it must be seen, not in deep slumber but with eyes wide open. In 2006, Julia Hunter, a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Manchester and Co-founder of District Commons, a US non-profit organization, moved to London. This was to start a career in commercial space-flight with Virgin Galactic when the company was a relatively small startup.
She listened to Sir Richard Branson explain how this startup would put a product on the market for the public to experience space-flight and see the earth from the vantage of space. Julia became enamoured with this idea of space for everyone and has since poured nearly every ounce of her efforts into its success. She expresses, “There has been no clear-cut roadmap for the path I have paved, but it continues to be the most extraordinary journey.”
“Both professionally and personally, I am passionate about exploration.”
Finding New Horizons
Julia’s career has taken her from astrophysics and academia to helping operate the world’s first publicly traded commercial space-line company which recently began trading on the NYSE. Before joining Virgin Galactic, she co-founded District Commons which served as a network of resources dedicated to building community and collaboration to catalyse and advancing society.
During and after college, she engrained herself into aerospace, attending conferences, becoming a member of the National Space Society, International Association of Astronomical Artists, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Women in Aerospace, and working various projects with ESA and NASA.
Virgin Galactic is the world’s first commercial space-line for private astronauts. Julia explains, “Our business aim has always been to Change the World for Good, and we do that from how we operate and treat our teammates, to how we are opening access to space.”
Being the Senior Vice President for a company which aims to change humanity’s relationship with its home planet, is both a privilege and pleasure for Julia. Her responsibilities include the management of a senior staff team, organizational operations, and ensuring that safety and regulatory compliance is met.
On a broad scale, her work has her strategising the direction of the company through operations while developing and maintaining key corporate relationships.
The Fuel to Drive
Julia’s overarching role is to work and support a team of incredibly talented and driven people that, like her, also carry Virgin Galactic’s goals in their DNA. The challenge of human space-flight is a constant motivation and a constant place of learning. It is what drives her and many others in the space industry. Seeking personal balance in this environment is how Julia finds and encourages others to find, sustained energy for optimal human performance demanded from these types of endeavours.
At Virgin Galactic, Julia promotes the concept that balance can provide a self-powering, self-sustaining charge which is often needed with the intensity of aerospace ventures. She explains, “Seeking balance does not necessarily always mean finding balance, but it does mean making a conscious choice to add value to my life through differing avenues; finding time to quieten the mind, play with my kids, have date nights with my husband, train to run marathons, and climb mountains. Of course, I don’t do all of these things every day, but I have found that making an effort each day to do things outside of my professional role, has made me a much happier and more balanced person.”
The Starry Moments
Reliving the moment her crew flew to space for the first time in December 2018, Julia categorizes it as the most remarkable moment. She recalls, “It was an electric period leading up to that successful flight which landed back in Mojave with the world’s newest astronauts. Watching the flight from the vantage of the mission control room, was impressive and restless and it took some time for the success of that flight to sink in. The look on the faces of the crew members reflected how meaningful and inspirational this endeavour was and would always be to the dedicated group of talented people who had made it possible.”
Virgin Galactic entered 2019 as a private organization with one space-flight under its belt and its commercial operating base still under construction. It finished the year as the world’s first publicly listed human space-flight company, operating from the globe’s only purpose-built commercial spaceport, with two space-flights completed and five commercial astronauts among its teammates. Julia applauds the effort put in by every team member saying, “Our team has done that in twelve months, and I am proud to be one of the people at the helm.”
Bolstering a positive company culture has brought Julia a lot of professional gratification. Science shows that both positivity and diversity do drive success. They provide efficiency in problem-solving, boost creativity and allow for a much more dynamic and fun workplace. In recent years Julia has relished championing inclusion, helping develop Virgin Galactic’s intern and mentorship programs. She also shares her knowledge and journey at forums such as the Google Women in Tech forums.
On the same note, she advises the blooming entrepreneurs to “Approach every problem with the unwavering conviction that it has a solution.” She feels that obstacles to space exploration are innate and although many of the trials that one faces in this line of business are unique to the field, so many aren’t unlike what new entrepreneurial ventures encounter. Challenges generally have multiple solutions. Applying creativity and tenacity to find one, and preferably the best one to fit the circumstances always proves useful.
The Work Culture
Julia is analytical in her approach to science and business, and is an impassioned leader connecting, empowering, and supporting culture in the workplace. Guided by the Virgin Galactic brand values and the greater Virgin values, Julia and her team, work hard to promote a work culture where the teammates feel that they can fully engage. Creating a healthy culture has meant creating a space where the workforce is happy, fulfilled, and engaged. One way is through providing access to any teammate.
Julia elaborates, “In a company where safety is our north star, we promote and very highly regard, accessibility to one another as well as openness in communication. I sit wherever I can find a seat, in one of many office locations, and if someone has a question for me, I will stop what I am doing and make myself available. Although we have a chain of approval, we strive for familiarity.”
Of Grit & Gratitude
At Virgin Galactic’s sister company, The Spaceship Company, one of the core values is that of ‘pure grit.’ It’s the idea that resiliency triumphs. Julia shares this belief, along with another – gratitude. “Gratitude for me allows perspective and re-energizes me. With tenacity and gratitude you can create and recreate new norms, and push boundaries daily,” concludes Julia Hunter.