Meet the pilots of Virgin Galactic's first flight to space

After months of testing Richard Branson's rocket-powered plane at lower altitudes, two of Virgin Galactic's ...

Posted: Dec 17, 2018 12:52 AM
Updated: Dec 17, 2018 12:52 AM

After months of testing Richard Branson's rocket-powered plane at lower altitudes, two of Virgin Galactic's test pilots made it to the edge of space on Thursday — 51.4 miles above Earth.

For pilots Mark "Forger" Stucky and Frederick "CJ" Sturckow, looming over the flight was the memory of a tragic test flight in 2014. Virgin Galactic's first vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, ripped apart in mid-air, killing a co-pilot.

Armed forces

Aviation and aerospace industry

Business and industry sectors

Business figures

Business, economy and trade

Companies

Government organizations - US

Military

NASA

Richard Branson

Space and astronomy

Space exploration

Space industry

Spacecraft and satellites

US federal departments and agencies

US government independent agencies

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Group Ltd

Space tourism

Travel and tourism

Celestial bodies and objects

Earth

Planets and moons

Stucky spoke to CNN Business after Thursday's successful firing of the rebuilt SpaceShipTwo, called VSS Unity, to record heights at nearly three times the speed of sound. He said it was like taking a thoroughbred racehorse into a full gallop for the first time.

"Before you can race her you have to train and walk her down uneven terrain, but eventually you have to say, maybe I should race her," he said. "That's what Unity reminded me of."

The test flight was the first time Brason's space tourism startup has gone more than 50 miles above Earth. It earned both pilots commercial astronaut wings from the US government and put Virgin Galactic on track to become the first private company in the world to take paying customers to space.

Virgin Galactic had worked toward the goal since it was founded in 2004. It also marked the first crewed flight to space from US soil since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011, with Virgin Galactic beating out other well-funded competitors.

The company is squared up to compete directly with Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin to conduct suborbital tourism flights. SpaceX and Boeing, meanwhile, are due to begin flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station — a trip that requires speeds over Mach 30 — next year.

Making history

Virgin Galactic and its corps of test pilots have worked for years rebuilding its spacecraft and its public image.

Branson watched alongside a crowd of employees, their family members and friends in Mojave, California with nervous energy as Stucky and Sturckow took to the skies.

It wasn't clear ahead of time whether they would reach the 50-mile mark. The pilots had the option to cut the engine burn short, which they would have been forced to do if any of the safety checks were abnormal or weather turned bad.

The pair tried to do everything possible to boost their chances of success. The morning before flight, Stucky and Sturckow met at Virgin Galactic's Mojave hangar at 4:30 am to run through flight simulations meant to mimic any possible curve ball the day could throw their way.

"We did it again, and again, and again, and got it perfectly," Stucky said.

It paid off.

Despite a rough windshear, VSS Unity's engine roared for 60 seconds and reached Mach 2.9. The blaze ended, and the cockpit window looked out into the blackness of the cosmos with an expansive view of Earth's curved horizon. Mission control dispatched: "Welcome to space." Branson wept.

A balanced act

Stucky, 60, and Sturckow, 57, have more than 15,000 hours of flying experience between them. They're both former marines and have known each other since the 1980s, but they've never worked together before joining Virgin Galactic. Their personalities are polar opposites.

Stucky is verbose and charismatic, while Sturckow is known for his stoicism and intensity.

When the men emerged from VSS Unity after their historic flight Thursday, they walked toward the crowd. Stucky broke into a sprint, bolting directly for the area where the pilots' family members were watching.

He gave his wife a kiss and handed Branson a small globe that he carried with him during the flight. On an outdoor stage near the runway, he addressed the crowd of employees, family members and friends with visible excitement.

"It was really amazing, I hope you guys could maybe capture a sense of that," he said. Stucky joked at one point that reaching space meant he'd left the United States, and he handed Branson a set of customs declaration forms.

When Stucky gave Sturckow the microphone, he offered just two phrases: "It was a great flight, and I can't wait to do it again. Thank you, Forger."

"That's more words than he usually gives," one audience member remarked.

Stucky said going into the flight, he was glad for Sturckow's levelheadedness.

"The thing I knew about CJ was that nothing would frustrate him, and I knew that he wouldn't cave under pressure no matter how bad it got," he said.

Earning wings

The rare designation of astronaut wings is awarded by NASA or the Air Force when a flight in their respective programs reaches more than 50 miles above Earth.

The first-ever commercial astronaut wings were awarded by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2004 to Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, who piloted SpaceShipOne, the supersonic plane that was the precursor for SpaceShipTwo.

FAA Assistant Administrator Bailey Edwards took the stage with Stucky and Sturckow Thursday to announce that they, too, would receive the designation in a ceremony next year.

Sturckow already has a set of wings. He's a former NASA astronaut who flew on four Space Shuttle missions between 1998 and 2009. By the time he left NASA to join Virgin Galactic in 2013, he already logged more than 1,200 hours in space.

But for Stucky, earning astronaut wings was decades in the making. He dreamed of traveling deep into the skies since he was a kid. After reaching the final stages of selection for the astronaut corps — a hyper-competitive process — he didn't make the cut.

He worked as a test pilot for NASA and the Air Force, logging experience on more than 170 types of vehicles throughout his career. He teamed up with Virgin Galactic about a decade ago. It gave him another shot at reaching his lifelong goal.

When he finally reached space Thursday, Stucky honored a bet he lost to longtime pal Jack Fischer over who would get there first. Fischer was selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2009 and spent 136 days in space last year. Stucky carried Fischer's name tag with him during Thursday's flight.

But Stucky said none of that was top of mind.

"The overwhelming feeling is not anything about being an astronaut, it's about doing a good job and not letting the company down and not letting Richard down," he said. It was about showing what all those people at Virgin Galactic had worked for was "more than just a vision."

Stucky told CNN Business in October that he never felt like he was gambling with his life when he boarded VSS Unity for a powered test flight. But on Thursday he admitted he tried to shield some members of his family from the inevitable risk he took on firing a rocket engine up to 260,000 feet in the air.

Stucky's daughter gave birth earlier in the week. "I did not tell them about this flight because I didn't want to stress her out," he said.

When asked how he would celebrate they day's achievement, Stucky laughed and said his wife "got me a really nice bottle of whiskey."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 895229

Reported Deaths: 9462
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1749772017
Ramsey722701040
Dakota66032572
Anoka62513568
Washington39357355
Stearns32821275
St. Louis28761399
Wright25354211
Scott25329181
Olmsted21750127
Sherburne18478126
Carver1629166
Clay11923103
Blue Earth1126366
Rice11234138
Crow Wing11003122
Chisago974676
Kandiyohi9660106
Otter Tail9611126
Benton8815124
Beltrami801794
Goodhue786596
Douglas7689100
Itasca752796
Mower721349
Winona702756
McLeod694483
Isanti681383
Steele669431
Morrison663479
Becker620873
Polk591684
Freeborn550846
Carlton529474
Nobles521654
Lyon518761
Mille Lacs516573
Nicollet510960
Pine500641
Cass491252
Todd483642
Brown465057
Le Sueur445933
Meeker422357
Martin378143
Wabasha366010
Waseca365132
Dodge351511
Hubbard349848
Roseau307931
Fillmore299115
Wadena298239
Redwood277845
Houston266817
Renville264151
Faribault253032
Pennington247529
Sibley246917
Kanabec241536
Cottonwood225032
Chippewa216342
Aitkin215850
Pope203210
Watonwan194920
Yellow Medicine185423
Rock174728
Swift169322
Koochiching168123
Stevens164511
Jackson159216
Clearwater155720
Marshall151122
Murray150911
Pipestone148329
Lake129824
Lac qui Parle120025
Wilkin119416
Mahnomen104714
Norman10389
Grant9719
Big Stone9365
Lincoln8705
Kittson71523
Red Lake70710
Traverse5996
Unassigned572124
Lake of the Woods5235
Cook3020

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 516453

Reported Deaths: 7289
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk80319799
Linn32142424
Scott26637292
Black Hawk21974378
Woodbury20490258
Johnson19778105
Dubuque18515241
Pottawattamie15890213
Dallas15320113
Story1380258
Warren8450104
Cerro Gordo7964123
Clinton7725114
Webster7326122
Des Moines7098105
Marshall669093
Muscatine6645117
Wapello6441144
Jasper619591
Sioux610177
Lee5908105
Marion557897
Buena Vista502149
Plymouth488388
Henry418655
Benton404859
Jones404862
Bremer395372
Washington391463
Boone389739
Carroll367755
Mahaska365365
Crawford353747
Dickinson314655
Jackson307747
Buchanan305741
Clay295536
Delaware294654
Kossuth289077
Fayette286353
Hardin284353
Tama279777
Page272533
Wright266149
Cedar265527
Hamilton259857
Winneshiek258143
Floyd255449
Clayton244459
Poweshiek237243
Madison234525
Harrison234379
Cass233466
Butler232744
Iowa229634
Jefferson223043
Mills220930
Winnebago215938
Hancock214639
Cherokee211347
Lyon206142
Appanoose205357
Allamakee203955
Calhoun196919
Shelby196442
Union191141
Humboldt185130
Grundy183637
Franklin183029
Mitchell182043
Chickasaw178922
Emmet178246
Louisa176953
Sac171026
Guthrie168137
Montgomery161745
Clarke160829
Keokuk150839
Palo Alto150532
Howard146824
Monroe142739
Ida130141
Greene127517
Davis124625
Lucas124426
Monona122939
Worth12139
Pocahontas120724
Adair114337
Osceola104818
Decatur101913
Taylor98514
Fremont95913
Van Buren93222
Wayne84525
Ringgold76729
Audubon74917
Adams5748
Unassigned480
Rochester
Clear
32° wxIcon
Hi: 40° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 24°
Mason City
Clear
31° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 27°
Feels Like: 20°
Albert Lea
Partly Cloudy
28° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 20°
Austin
Partly Cloudy
30° wxIcon
Hi: 45° Lo: 29°
Feels Like: 21°
Charles City
Partly Cloudy
32° wxIcon
Hi: 52° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 23°
Mild heading into the weekend
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Small Business Saturday

Image

L-O wins it all and PEM comes up short

Image

Snow tubing hill opens

Image

RFD high school program

Image

High School Firefighting program

Image

Overheated HVAC unit

Image

Full Forecast 10 PM 11/27/21

Image

Full Forecast 6PM 11/27/21

Image

Small Business Saturday Preview

Image

Here comes Santa Claus

Community Events