Behind every remarkable program is a team of remarkable people — and someone who masterfully orchestrates the essential day-to-day operations to support both. At Virgin Galactic, the suborbital-space tourism company and aspiring high-speed transportation provider founded by business magnate Richard Branson, that person is senior vice president Julia Hunter.
Though Hunter has worked for Virgin Galactic since 2006, she was on the ground to witness the company's 2004 birth in the Mojave Desert, when a pilot rocketed a bulbous, improbable-looking vehicle called SpaceShipOne beyond the edge of space (some 62 miles up) and back — twice in a week. The flights afforded views of Earth's curved limb against a backdrop of inky-black space, plus a few minutes of weightlessness.
"I came away from that moment just knowing I was going to work on Virgin Galactic," Hunter told Business Insider. As Branson booted up Virgin Galactic to license and improve upon the technology, with the aim of routinely flying six passengers into space at a time, Hunter returned to England to complete her doctorate in astrophysics. But all the while, she tracked "every person connected to Virgin Galactic in the UK" and convinced them to bring her on board.
It worked. Hunter rose through the ranks through her efforts in organizational operations, business strategy, corporate relations, regulatory compliance, safety, company culture, and managing senior staff for a wholly novel and inherently risky business — one that, at its start, had no certainty of success and few regulations to guide its evolution.
"You need the best humans to work on programs like this to make them happen," she said in a 2018 video.
When Virgin Galactic and its partners saw numerous setbacks and two deadly tragedies, Hunter was there to help put the company back on its feet. "In those moments, you're trying to anchor the team and not have the team lose faith but be able to stand back and apply their mind to what urgently needs to be done," she said.
She's since played instrumental roles in supporting two successful flights to suborbit with Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, the minting of five new commercial astronauts, and taking the company public. In August, incoming CEO Michael Colglazier promoted her to help transition Virgin Galactic toward flying paying passengers. Key to her 14 years of success there, she says, is an embrace of adaptation.
"This company has been three or four different companies throughout its evolution," Hunter said. "I like to say I've had the most in-depth apprenticeship program out of the business, which is actually what I think enables me to do my job now the best: I've had that touch with all the different pieces."
Branson, who has described Hunter as an exemplary member of his larger Virgin Group, hopes those pieces add up to a transformation for our species. "Space has the ability to unite humanity and help us overcome our differences," he said in a newsletter. "It helps us see the bigger picture and the fragility of our existence."