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From Disney Parks to Space Vehicles: Bruin Engineer and Virgin Galactic Executive Shares Career Journey

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UCLA Samueli

Dave Crawford ’95 (right) returned to UCLA where he gave a talk moderated by Ann Karagozian (left), a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Apr 5, 2023

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Dave Crawford ’95, vice president of engineering at Virgin Galactic, recently visited his alma mater at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, where he met with students, faculty and alumni for a fireside chat about lessons learned from decades of entertainment magic and, more recently, commercial spaceflight.

The Feb. 28 hybrid event was the latest installment in the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series, which brings innovators at the top of their field to campus, giving the UCLA Samueli community an opportunity to interact with top tech leaders. More than 100 people attended the event in person, along with two dozen more who joined via livestream.

Fourth-year aerospace engineering student Anais Hernandez kicked off the hour-long program alongside Interim Dean Bruce Dunn, who gave the opening remarks. The discussion with Crawford was facilitated by Ann Karagozian, a distinguished professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering.

Inspired by his father, who was also a mechanical engineer, Crawford said his interest in engineering began early in life.

Students with Dave Crawford
Crawford, holding a launch vehicle model he brought to the speaker series, spoke with UCLA students who attended the event.

“To a kid, it was like magic,” Crawford said as he recalled doing simple engineering experiments when he was young. “It was like some new world that was being opened to me. While there were understandable principles, it was still mind-blowing.”

That passion for engineering eventually took him to UCLA. He said his time as a Bruin was fundamental in helping him discover what he truly wanted out of the field, eventually focusing on aerospace engineering and the entertainment industry. Crawford shared a fond memory of a materials science class, which was taught by a particularly creative professor who encouraged Crawford and his peers to think beyond the textbook. He took this approach to heart, carrying it with him throughout his professional journey.

Crawford’s time at UCLA also exposed him to different personalities and avenues, which he said were helpful to him in navigating a similarly diverse career. He spent 25 years with Walt Disney Imagineering, where he led development in a variety of departments, including iconic rides for Disney’s theme parks, such as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

“Underneath the magic, dreams and pixie dust are some sophisticated engineering systems,” said Dave Crawford about his time with Walt Disney Imagineering.

“Underneath the magic, dreams and pixie dust are some sophisticated engineering systems,” Crawford said about his time with the entertainment conglomerate.

In 2022, Crawford left behind the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ for a new adventure at Virgin Galactic, where he has pioneered spaceflight for the general public and led teams to design a vehicle that can safely take passengers on a suborbital journey. He emphasized the importance of experience-based design, centered on creating systems that best serve the customers.

Crawford brought a model of the company’s launch vehicle to the event to demonstrate its unique re-entry feathering mechanism as it flipped upwards 90 degrees on the wings of the vehicle, turning it into a safe rocket capsule in one fluid motion. Once the vehicle slows to critical velocity, the “feathers” return to their normal position, allowing the vehicle to glide back to earth like a plane. In designing a system that resembles an airplane, Crawford said Virgin Galactic aims to bring familiarity to its customers — even as they venture into very unfamiliar territory. The group hopes to send its first customers to space later this year, he said.

Besides creating an exciting opportunity for private passengers to experience spaceflight, Crawford said the company’s work has several research applications. For instance, engineers who want to see how a material functions in zero gravity could test it in real conditions for a sustained period. Current methods allow for about 30 seconds in microgravity, but Virgin Galactic’s vehicle can reach space and achieve more than 3 minutes of weightlessness. Astronauts could also have the chance to experience a zero-gravity environment before their real missions through Virgin Galactic. Such applications could change microgravity research for generations to come.

“We’re very committed to an educational approach to inspiring the world,” Crawford said. “Everything about what we’re doing is not just about getting people up (to space) and back — this is not a bucket list check for people to do. This is about transforming the way they look at themselves and the world around them while inspiring positive change back in the world in any way we can.”

Although Disney and Virgin Galactic might appear to represent vastly different industries, they both piqued Crawford’s interest through their ambitious, challenging projects. It also helps, Crawford said, that both companies advertise one-of-a-kind experiences for their customers.

“All the acronyms, terms and departments are different,” he shared. “But ultimately, the approach to designing a very exciting experience for the public to participate in and keep them safe is very much the same.”

Through Crawford’s storied career, he has watched the engineering field grow and evolve as more people get their foot in the door. This represents a positive change — not simply for representation, but also for the diversity of ideas that are organically brought to the table.

“If you just have a group of people that think, act and are educated the same way, you tend to come to the traditional solutions,” he said. “And when you’re working in an innovative environment where you’re delivering experimental systems, you need people to push each other in different directions and uncomfortable areas.”

Crawford’s talk can be viewed on UCLA Samueli’s YouTube channel.

The Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series was established in 2016 by triple Bruin engineer Ronald Sugar ’68, M.S. ’69, Ph.D. ’71, former CEO and chairman of the board for Northrop Grumman, and his wife Valerie Sugar ’71, who got her bachelor’s in history at UCLA.

Dannela Lagrimas contributed to this story.

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