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The Makings of a Modern Astronaut: Virgin Galactic's Story

Working from exclusive inside reporting, New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle tells the remarkable story of the test pilots, engineers, and visionaries behind Virgin Galactic’s campaign to build a space tourism company. He provided QDT with an excerpt from his book Test Gods

By
Nicholas Schmidle
5-minute read

A split second into the mission, Mark Stucky knew something was horribly wrong. Pushing the stick forward, he had expected to enter an aggressive dive, like a kamikaze bomber racing at its target—in this case the bleak California desert. But now the tail of his spaceship was stalled and beginning to drift, contorting his carefully calibrated dive into an unintended back flop.

The computer on board the spaceship was going berserk—alerts beep- ing, yellow and red lights flashing. Grunting, Stucky pulled on the stick to try to level out. Nothing happened. He was now upside down and floating out of his seat, 40,000 feet in the air. The straps of his harness dug into his shoulders. The ship was falling fast.

Think.

An average human brain weighs about three pounds and contains nearly a hundred billion neurons; an almond-shaped cluster near the brain stem handles our response to fear. Most people panic when they’re afraid. Their palms sweat, their hearts pound, and their minds freeze—at the exact moment acuity is needed most.

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Stucky was not most people.

He thumbed the pitch trim switch, hoping the pair of horizontal sta- bilizers on the tail booms would bite the air. No response. He reached up and switched to the emergency trim system. No response.

Already upside down, now the spaceship was beginning to spin. Stucky counted each rotation as the plunging craft spun past the sun.

One . . . two . . .

Stucky remained almost mysteriously calm. Clinical. He found an odd sort of comfort in such moments. His job was dangerous enough without letting panic get in the way. He was a test pilot, determined to navigate unexplored aerodynamic realms so that his engineering colleagues could define the spaceship’s capabilities and limits; as Arthur C. Clarke said, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

Each test flight offered some new adventure. But “expanding the enve- lope,” as test pilots described their work, was not adventurism for its own sake. It was a methodical process that drew as much on the discipline and rigor of the scientist as on the artful improvisation of the daredevil.

Fly, test, notate, adjust; fly, test, notate, adjust.

Stucky rummaged through a mental catalog of personal experiences and training manuals and anything he’d ever read or heard from any other pilot in search of something useful, some way to save his ship—and his life.

He deployed the speed brakes. Nothing. Stepped on the opposite rud- der pedal. Nothing. The spaceship continued to tumble and corkscrew at an alarming rate, losing 1,000 feet of altitude every two seconds. The sun kept flashing in the cockpit windows.

Three . . . four . . .

“We’re in a left spin,” his copilot, Clint Nichols, announced over the radio, his voice flat as a clerk requesting a cleanup on aisle four.

Stucky had practiced entering and recovering from inverted spins like this plenty of times in other crafts. They were nonetheless unpleasant and dangerous maneuvers. In 1953, Chuck Yeager was flying an X-1—the same type of rocket ship he used to break the sound barrier—when he entered an inverted spin at 80,000 feet and spent nearly a minute “fight- ing to try to recover the airplane and stay conscious from the high rota- tional rates.” He eventually regained control, at 25,000 feet. Thirty-two years later, the stunt pilot who filmed Yeager’s scenes in The Right Stuff was doing stunts for the movie Top Gun when he got into an inverted spin, crashed, and died.

Stucky was confused: he couldn’t understand why the tail had stalled. Stumped, he felt sickened that the last option to avoid an almost cer- tain death was going to require him to unbuckle, crawl down, open the hatch, jump out, throw his parachute, and watch as Richard Branson’s multimillion-dollar spaceship smashed into pieces on the desert floor, and, perhaps with it, Branson’s dream of making his space tourism com- pany, Virgin Galactic, a reality.

Stucky was chasing his own dream. He’d spent almost forty years try- ing to become an astronaut. He’d done stints in the Marines, the Air Force, and NASA, and he now worked for an experimental aviation firm, Scaled Composites, which Branson, a showboating British mogul, had hired to build and test a spaceship for commercial use. It was beyond zany, Bran- son’s dream of sending passengers into space aboard this handmade craft they called SpaceShipTwo. But the zany ones were often the ones who made history. When Norman Mailer first embarked on his book about the Apollo program, he couldn’t make up his mind whether Apollo was “the noblest expression of the Twentieth Century or the quintessential state- ment of our fundamental insanity.”

Branson was not the only one with such ambitions. He had rivals, like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, with his space company Blue Origin, and Tesla founder Elon Musk, with his company SpaceX. They were all building rockets to take people into space, and Branson was clear that he wanted to be “the first of the three entrepreneurs fighting to put people into space to get there.”

Each had distinct visions for the journey. Virgin had pioneered a unique air-launch system—a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, had been designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to roughly 45,000 feet so the rocket ship would not waste its energy slogging through the dense, lower atmosphere— while others used a more traditional ground-launch system.

Virgin planned to take half a dozen passengers on a “suborbital” flight, cresting about 50 miles above the Earth. By comparison, what is called “low Earth orbit” starts at 100 miles above sea level; the International Space Station orbits at an average of 150 miles above that; GPS satellites, which operate in “medium” Earth orbit, are about 13,000 miles away.

Blue Origin shared Virgin’s suborbital altitude goal for its initial crewed flights but was intent on exploring deep space, too. SpaceX was arguably the most ambitious: Musk wanted to colonize Mars, a minimum of thirty-four million miles away.

But perhaps the most striking distinction boiled down to their belief in the human mind. Blue Origin and SpaceX were run by tech wizards, algorithmic geniuses who trusted in mathematical power to eliminate human error, to one day render fallibility obsolete. Virgin was analog, and despite the futurism of SpaceShipTwo’s mission, the vehicle was relatively simple—cables and rods, no autopilot, no automation.

The fate of the ship was in Stucky’s hands.

Nichols was sure they were going to die: that was the hazard of crewed spaceflight. “If you want to build confidence in space, don’t try sending people there,” David Cowan, a venture capitalist who has invested in several commercial satellite companies, said. “Any failure will be a catastrophe.”

The day was shaping up to be just that. Down on the runway, the lime- colored fire trucks were ready to go. Doug Shane, the president of Scaled, uttered the words that company insiders would recognize as code for a looming disaster. When he said “Blue Zebra,” his colleagues knew to plan for the worst.

But Stucky wasn’t ready to give up just yet. As the spaceship spun and fell calamitously toward the Earth, he remembered one last thing he wanted to try: he hoped to God it worked.

From TEST GODS by Nicholas Schmidle. Copyright © 2021 by the author and reprinted with permission of Henry Holt & Co.