05 January 2019

The New Yorker: “Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man”

Two weeks later, Stucky completed the final glide test. It was time for a rocket-powered flight. After more than three years, Virgin Galactic had fought its way back to where it had been on the morning of the crash.

Branson started training, playing more tennis and rehabbing a shoulder that he’d injured while kitesurfing. I asked him if he and his wife had discussed the possibility of his meeting a tragic end. In the NASA Space Shuttle program, one in sixty-eight flights resulted in a fatal crash. “We’re a family that believes you should live life to its fullest”, Branson said. “I’ve done a lot of ballooning trips. My son climbed the Matterhorn a couple of years ago. We’ve been born under a lucky star, I think.”

As adventurous as Stucky was, he didn’t believe in lucky stars, or lucky breakfasts. “The only superstition I have is not to be superstitious”, he said. The same empiricism led him to keep urging Virgin Galactic engineers not to be spooked by the past. When some of them proposed redesigning the landing gear to make it stronger, Stucky argued that this was excessively cautious, and would cause needless delays. To make his case, he retrieved the destroyed spaceship’s landing gear from storage, and demonstrated that, after nearly forty flights and a catastrophic crash, the gear remained as good as new.

Nicholas Schmidle

Great story about the efforts behind Virgin Galactic’s efforts to make commercial spaceflight a reality. And a perfect time to share it, now that the team successfully completed the first roundtrip to the edge of space, at an altitude of more than 80 km. It’s a shame Virgin Galactic doesn’t get nearly as much press coverage as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, but unfortunately that’s how media works, regularly focusing on the people who make the most noise, not those delivering results.

Virgin Galactic in Space for the first time

Even more fascinating: the personal story of their lead test pilot, Mark Stucky, whose current high-risk job cost him a marriage and nearly broke the relationship with his children. If someone ever considers turning this piece of spaceflight history into a movie, I’m sure he will make a great protagonist!

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