The ace pilot risking his life to fulfill Richard Branson’s billion-dollar quest to make commercial space travel a reality.
Mark Stucky, the lead test pilot for SpaceShipTwo. “As a Marine Corps colonel once told me,” Stucky said, “ ‘If you want to be safe, go be a shoe salesman at Sears.’ ”
At 5 a.m. on April 5th, Mark Stucky drove to an airstrip in Mojave, California, and gazed at SpaceShipTwo, a sixty-foot-long craft that is owned by Virgin Galactic, a part of the Virgin Group. Painted white and bathed in floodlight, it resembled a sleek fighter plane, but its mission was to ferry thousands of tourists to and from space.
Stucky had piloted SpaceShipTwo on two dozen previous test flights, including three of the four times that it had fired its rocket booster, which was necessary to propel it into space. On October 31, 2014, he watched the fourth such flight from mission control; it crashed in the desert, killing his best friend. On this morning, Stucky would be piloting the fifth rocket-powered flight, on a new iteration of the spaceship. A successful test would restore the program’s lustre.
Stucky walked into Virgin Galactic’s large beige hangar. He is fifty-nine and has a loose-legged stroll, tousled salt-and-pepper hair, and sunken, suntanned cheeks. In other settings, he could pass for a retired beachcomber. He wears the smirk of someone who feels certain that he’s having more fun than you are.
Inside the hangar, he and his co-pilot, a Scotsman named Dave Mackay, spent thirty minutes in a flight simulator that approximated the current weather and wind conditions. Afterward, Stucky announced to colleagues that he and Mackay felt “pretty comfortable.” If all went according to plan, they would strap themselves into SpaceShipTwo—which was attached like a marsupial to the belly of a mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo—and take off from the runway, like an ordinary plane. At an altitude of forty-five thousand feet, WhiteKnightTwo would release SpaceShipTwo as if it were a bomb. Then, on Stucky’s command, Mackay would ignite SpaceShipTwo’s rocket. It would burn for thirty seconds, bringing them to a speed of more than eleven hundred miles an hour—nearly twice the speed of sound—and sending them to roughly ninety thousand feet, higher than Stucky had ever flown. (Passenger jets cruise at about thirty-five thousand feet.) If the flight landed successfully, and Virgin Galactic then completed a few more supersonic tests, the company could soon start offering spaceflights to the six hundred customers who have already paid a quarter of a million dollars for the thrill.
The Virgin conglomerate is owned by Richard Branson, the British billionaire, and Virgin Galactic is one of three prominent startups that are racing to build and test manned rockets. Its rivals are Blue Origin, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon; and SpaceX, which is owned by Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. Musk has said that he hopes that all this rocket building will “inspire the public to get excited about space again.” Branson recently told CNN, “I hope that Virgin Galactic will be the first of the three entrepreneurs fighting to put people into space to get there.”
The companies have different visions for the journey. Virgin Galactic plans to take half a dozen passengers on a “suborbital” flight, cresting at more than fifty miles above the Earth. Blue Origin has a similar altitude goal for its first manned flights, but it is developing the kind of vertical-launch system that one associates with nasa rockets. SpaceX is perhaps the most ambitious: Musk wants to colonize Mars.
Mars is more than thirty-three million miles from Earth. By comparison, what is called “low Earth orbit” starts at a hundred miles above sea level; the International Space Station orbits a hundred and fifty miles above that; G.P.S. satellites, which operate in “medium” Earth orbit, are about thirteen thousand miles away. In February, SpaceX launched its biggest rocket yet: it is two hundred and thirty feet tall, and capable of transporting humans, and some seventy tons of payload, into orbit. In the CNN interview, Branson praised Musk and his team, saying that he’d love to try to “upstage that one,” but added that he would leave Mars to Musk.
Three months ago, Branson called me from Necker, his private island in the Caribbean, and said, “We see ours being the spaceship for Earth”—a vehicle whose purpose is not escapist but humanistic. He referred to a 1987 book, “The Overview Effect,” by Frank White, which quotes former astronauts reflecting on the profundity of staring at Earth from space. One of them describes the effect as a “feeling of unity.” Another says, “You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world.” Branson told me, “I believe that, once people have gone to space, they come back with renewed enthusiasm to try and tackle what is happening on this planet.”
Branson is betting that a suborbital flight will be a transcendent experience, if not a very long one. Virgin Galactic passengers will spend about ninety minutes in the air; for most of that time, the craft will be coupled to WhiteKnightTwo as it climbs to forty-five thousand feet. After the rocket-boost portion of the flight, during which SpaceShipTwo will shoot upward at nearly ninety degrees, passengers, released from gravity’s pull, will be able to unbuckle their harnesses and float in the cabin for about four minutes, taking in stunning views of the Grand Canyon, the California coastline, and the Baja Peninsula. Like tour-bus drivers, the Virgin Galactic pilots will help passengers identify celestial bodies and terrestrial landmarks that can be seen out the window.
For now, this itinerary remains a fantasy. None of the startups has even attempted a manned spaceflight, and some experts view the idea of commercial space travel as irresponsibly risky. The explosions of the Space Shuttles Challenger, in 1986, and Columbia, in 2003, made clear that even formidable government agencies like nasa are susceptible to fatal mistakes. David Cowan, of Bessemer Venture Partners, which has invested in commercial satellite companies, told me, “If you want to build confidence in space, don’t try sending people there. Any failure will be a catastrophe.”
Shortly after 6 a.m., Stucky and Mackay stopped by the mission-control room, where three dozen engineers sat at consoles, reviewing the latest flight data. A supervisor directed them to confirm that they were ready to fly.
Stucky, speaking on behalf of himself and Mackay, solemnly addressed the people in the room: “We love you—no shit.”
The pilots retrieved their helmet bags from the locker room. They were driven to the east end of the runway, where WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo had been towed. Lime-green fire engines, driven by men in hazmat suits, got into position. The sun rose over the buttes to the east, and a faint half-moon still hung over the Tehachapis, a mountain range to the west. On nearby hillsides, hundreds of wind turbines pinwheeled.
Stucky climbed through a side hatch into the left seat of the cockpit. He posted on Facebook, “Zero hour 9 am and I’m going to be high as a kite by then.” He put on his helmet, lowered its shaded visor, slipped on his gloves, and breathed through his oxygen mask, to insure that it was working.
Behind Stucky and Mackay was a seventeen-hundred-gallon tank of liquid nitrous oxide, and, farther back, a twenty-seven-hundred-pound rocket motor, which was packed with ignition squibs and one ton of solid fuel. After SpaceShipTwo was released, the squibs would be ignited as nitrous oxide was sprayed onto the solid fuel, generating a controlled explosion.
Rockets are categorized by propellant type: liquid, solid, hybrid. Each kind comes with advantages and risks. A solid-fuel motor is arguably the simplest, but it burns like a firecracker, making it less than ideal for manned spaceflight: if anything goes haywire, the rocket can’t be shut off and will probably blow up. With a liquid-fuel configuration, the pilot can use a throttle to limit the flow of fuel, but such engines are often extremely complex—relying on multiple valves and cryogenic storage tanks—thereby increasing the likelihood of something going wrong.
Virtually from the start, Virgin Galactic had decided to focus on suborbital flights. Because such journeys would require much less fuel, energy, and infrastructure than orbital flights, tickets could be far cheaper. (A ticket for an orbital flight would likely cost tens of millions of dollars.) Moreover, whereas suborbital passengers would experience a minute of thrust, peaking at Mach 3, orbital passengers would experience more than eight minutes of thrust, peaking at Mach 25. After considering safety, cost, and the touristic goal of allowing passengers to view Earth while weightless, Virgin Galactic settled on a hybrid-fuel rocket that combined solid fuel with a liquid oxidizer. This configuration allows the pilot, at any time, to close a valve and halt the combustion process. And the solid fuel could be mixed in a way that would deliver an even, steady boost: a smooth ride.
The rocket was the most fearsome motor Stucky had commanded in four decades of aviation. The previous night, and into the morning, propulsion technicians had been dialling up the pressure in the nitrous tank. By this point, Stucky said, “the spaceship goes from being something you could safely park next to at a gas station to becoming a bomb.” Mackay further increased the pressure by flipping a switch that released helium from a smaller tank in the nose of the ship into the nitrous tank. The sound reminded Stucky of an old furnace hissing and clattering to life.
Virgin Galactic is competing with startups like SpaceX and Blue Origin to be the first private company to send tourists into space—a mission that some experts have deemed irresponsibly risky. Unlike its rivals, Virgin Galactic does not use automated vehicles. Once a Virgin Galactic ship is airborne, the fate of the ship and its passengers will be in the pilot’s hands.
Such tactile sensations were part of SpaceShipTwo’s appeal. Despite the futurism of its mission, the vehicle was a relatively simple aircraft. No autopilot. No automation. The other space companies would control the journey to space with computers: everyone on board was more or less along for the ride. Once a Virgin Galactic ship was airborne, the fate of the ship and its crew was in the pilot’s hands.
As the lead test pilot, Stucky was expected to navigate unexplored aerodynamic realms, so that the engineers could define the spaceship’s capabilities and limits. Each test flight offered some new adventure. But “expanding the envelope,” as test pilots describe their work, was not adventurism for its own sake; it was a process that drew just as much on the discipline and the rigor of the scientist as on the artful improvisation of the daredevil. Fly, test, notate, adjust; fly, test, notate, adjust. This was the only way to guarantee that the spaceship would be ready for commercial service.
In some ways, SpaceShipTwo was a throwback, modelled on the experimental X planes that the Air Force and nasa had flown in the mid-twentieth century. In 1947, an X-1 piloted by the Air Force captain Chuck Yeager became the first vehicle to break the sound barrier. In the sixties, test pilots flew the X-15 above Mach 6, reaching three hundred and fifty thousand feet. SpaceShipTwo’s design engineers had used some of that flight data. “That’s the basis of our models,” Mike Moses, the president of Virgin Galactic, told me. “But the X-15 had a whole different wing profile, vehicle loft, and control scheme. We can tweak that data for our vehicle, but, really, we have to plow that ground ourselves.”
Comparing SpaceShipTwo with Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket was equally inadequate. Moses explained, “A vertical-launch rocket handles those regimes a whole lot differently than an airplane with wings.” For a pilot like Stucky, the Blue Origin scheme held little appeal. “It’s automated,” he said. “They’ve got some astronauts, but I don’t know what the hell they’re going to do besides act like they’re doing something. It’s ‘Three, two, one—blastoff.’ ”
His hauteur echoed that of the X-plane pilots. Men like Yeager disparaged the Mercury astronauts for putting themselves in a capsule without any flight controls and then claiming they had flown it. In “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe writes that test pilots referred to astronauts as “Spam in a can,” and notes, “Astronaut meant ‘star voyager,’ but in fact the poor devil would be a guinea pig.”
At 8 a.m., WhiteKnightTwo, which has a hundred-and-forty-foot wingspan, powered up its four jet engines and charged up the runway. The mother ship has two fuselages, side by side, and SpaceShipTwo was nestled between them. The pilot of WhiteKnightTwo, Mike Masucci, climbed above forty thousand feet, flying over Death Valley, then banked west, toward Sequoia National Park, and, finally, south, back toward Mojave. Stucky looked out the window of SpaceShipTwo and wondered if his wife, his son, his daughter, and his daughter’s husband—all of whom were watching him from the runway—could see him through the spotty clouds.
He extended his right hand, and Mackay grabbed it: their fates were intertwined. A radio operator gave them clearance to start their “L-4” checks: four minutes until rocket launch.
Mackay: “Roll boost?”
Mackay: “Speed brake?”
They were ready. Thirty seconds before rocket launch, Mackay flipped the switch that controlled the release mechanism, and said, “SpaceShip is armed, with a yellow light.” From WhiteKnightTwo’s cockpit, Masucci counted down: “Three, two, one. Release, release, release.”
Mark Stucky grew up in Salina, Kansas, where his father, Paul, taught physics at a local college. The family lived in a one-story brick home. On February 20, 1962, when Stucky was three, he watched a rocket launch on TV. As John Glenn rode an Atlas rocket into orbit, Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchor, cheered, “Go, baby!” Glenn, then a forty-year-old marine, circled the Earth three times. “That view is tremendous,” he reported, while looking out the window. Five hours after liftoff, Glenn, in a six-by-seven-foot capsule, splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean.
Paul Stucky deeply respected the space program, and when Mark showed an interest in astronomy he fostered it, taking him and his sisters to the observatory at Kansas Wesleyan University. But Paul was also a Mennonite; as a conscientious objector, he spent the Second World War at a Civilian Public Service camp in Puerto Rico. When Stucky told his dad that he hoped to become an astronaut, Paul replied that doing so was impossible. Astronauts were selected from the military, and no son of his would ever serve.
Stucky didn’t bring it up again for years. But in grade school he came across an old article in National Geographic, “I Fly the X-15, Half Plane, Half Missile,” co-written by Joseph Walker, an Air Force pilot. Walker described an X-15 flight: “Acceleration from that inferno in the tail pipe pinned me back in my seat.” Stucky told me, “I was enthralled.”
At thirteen, he was captivated by another National Geographic story, about Californians who had taken up the new sport of hang gliding. The author described taking off from a hill above Newport Beach: “What can I tell you about this first step that encounters nothing solid? There’s nothing to it. This upward stride causes the jaw to drop and the mind to cease its disciplined churning.” Stucky persuaded his dad to split the cost of a glider. He made his first flight on May 15, 1974, near Wilson Lake, Kansas.
Stucky enrolled at Kansas State University, majoring in physical science, but often skipped lectures and went to the library to study topographical maps of flint hills in the area. He became skilled enough at gliding that he performed, uninvited, at the halftime show of a football game, mounting a two-stroke engine on his kite and flying around the stadium. In 1980, he was interviewed by K-Stater, the alumni magazine, and confided his hope of becoming an astronaut. “I hate to tell people that, because it seems like such a kiddie dream,” he said.
After graduation, he defied his father and enlisted in the Marines. Paul told him that he’d spend his time peeling potatoes and would never become a pilot. But Stucky was accepted into flight school, and in 1982 he joined a training squadron for F-4 Phantom pilots in Yuma, Arizona. (At the time, my father, a former Marine fighter pilot, was an instructor in the squadron.) A senior officer advised him to keep his desire to become an astronaut to himself, because the Marines resented it when top fighter pilots were yanked out of combat squadrons. Nevertheless, Stucky stood out. He was a remarkable aviator, in part because his eyesight was so good. (“It came to that, time after time, who could see the farthest,” James Salter wrote in “The Hunters,” his novel about Air Force dogfighters in the Korean War.) Stucky also was a showboater. In 1985, on a patrol mission over the Sea of Japan, he spotted a Soviet bomber in the distance, caught up to it, flipped upside down, got close enough that only a few dozen feet separated the cockpits, and snapped a photograph.
In 1989, Stucky applied to nasa to become an astronaut. He advanced to the final round, but didn’t make the cut. Two years later, he had the same frustrating result. Looking back, he compared the process to competing in the Miss America pageant: “You can be one of fifty very talented and beautiful women, but you can’t plan on winning. There’s an element of luck involved.”
nasa clearly liked what it saw, however, and offered him a job, in Houston, as a test pilot. He accepted, and left the Marines. Three years later, nasa sent him to the Dryden Flight Research Center, its flight-test facility at Edwards Air Force Base, in the California desert, where Chuck Yeager spent most of his career.
Stucky’s superiors were impressed by his piloting skills; an evaluation said that he had “no apparent weak points.” In 1997, he got a chance to fly the world’s fastest spy jet, the SR-71 Blackbird. He put on a yellow pressure suit, climbed to eighty thousand feet, and crept past Mach 3. He was merely a quarter of the way to space, and yet, as he later wrote in the magazine Flyer, he could see “the infinite azure of the Pacific Ocean” and the curvature of the Earth.
At Dryden, he began taking on engineering projects. In 1998, nasa was contemplating a manned hypersonic-research jet, and Stucky was asked to consult with outside experts. He invited Burt Rutan, an eccentric, muttonchopped engineer who lived in Mojave, out for lunch.
Rutan had founded a company, Scaled Composites, that was producing a cutting-edge prototype every year. “I like to do far-out things with airplanes,” Rutan told CNN. One of his planes, Voyager, looked like a jumble of toothpicks, but it was the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refuelling; Proteus, which set several altitude records, resembled a prehistoric bird. Today, five of Rutan’s planes are displayed at the National Air and Space Museum.
For Rutan, the desert isolation of Mojave, which is twenty miles northwest of Edwards, made it an ideal place for flight testing. Overhead was a block of military airspace where commercial traffic was forbidden. Sonic booms from Edwards often shook buildings. “This is the Silicon Valley for the new industry,” Jeff Greason, a veteran of Mojave’s aerospace industry, told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. “Nobody complains about making noise, or sending plumes into the sky.”
Stucky wasn’t expecting more than a brainstorming session with Rutan, but Rutan showed up with sketches for a scramjet—a plane that achieves combustion by funnelling supersonic air directly into the engine. Stucky told his bosses at Edwards about the drawings, but they showed little interest. Aviation priorities were changing: manned missions were out of fashion, drones were the rage, and national-security budgets were tight.
Stucky resigned. “It is disappointing to me that the world’s premier flight-test organization could consider going for extended periods without any . . . piloted research projects,” he wrote, in a departing note to nasa. “Dryden established its reputation by making the impossible possible but increasingly we seem content to make the possible impossible.”
He began flying for United Airlines, and sold mortgages for a few years, before going on active duty with the Air Force, in 2003. A year later, he deployed to Iraq. In an e-mail to friends and family, he recounted a harrowing, low-altitude helicopter ride across Baghdad: “I don’t care how much someone might have liked you, if you keep flying over their heads at 100 feet they are gonna eventually get annoyed.”
One night, he stayed up late to watch TV. He’d learned that Rutan was preparing to launch a manned, homemade rocket ship into space, and didn’t want to miss the event.
In 1996, an entrepreneur named Peter Diamandis announced that he would award ten million dollars to the first private citizen who sent a manned vehicle into space twice within two weeks. He called his contest the X Prize, and modelled it on a twenty-five-thousand-dollar award offered in 1919 to the first aviator to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. Four pilots died trying, and two others disappeared, before Charles Lindbergh, in May, 1927, crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.
Working behind a partition inside a Scaled Composites hangar in Mojave, Rutan and his team built a potbellied, high-winged, twenty-eight-foot-long plane, with three seats, simple controls, and a rocket in the rear. “If space is going to be cheap, it has to be stick-and-rudder,” Rutan said at the time. He called the vehicle SpaceShipOne. Inspired by nasa’s use of airborne platforms to launch the X-1 and the X-15, Rutan also developed a mother ship, which he named White Knight.
On June 21, 2004, tens of thousands of space-travel enthusiasts gathered in Mojave to witness the flight. Some visitors likened the experience to watching the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.
A few minutes before 7 a.m., White Knight took off, with SpaceShipOne attached underneath. At forty-seven thousand feet, Mike Melvill, the SpaceShipOne pilot, commanded release; then a fiery plume shot out of the rear nozzle, as Melvill pulled back on the stick, aiming SpaceShipOne straight up. He was moving at Mach 3, and after he shut the motor down, as planned, the craft coasted past what is widely recognized as the boundary of space: sixty-two miles, or three hundred and thirty thousand feet, above sea level.
Stucky watched a broadcast of the launch from his office, in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Rutan’s success filled him with elation, envy, and hope. After his unsuccessful bids at becoming a nasa astronaut, he’d resigned himself to never reaching space. Now he wondered if there might be another way.
In the fall of 2004, SpaceShipOne completed two more spaceflights, earning Rutan the X Prize. President George W. Bush called to congratulate him. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and William Shatner, of “Star Trek,” both witnessed the winning flight. Also in attendance was Richard Branson, the flaxen-haired British entrepreneur. Branson was invested in Rutan’s success, both financially and emotionally. At the age of thirty, Branson had produced a documentary to commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing—a psychedelic montage of telescope images, ambient soundscapes, and John F. Kennedy’s “moon shot” speech. Eight years later, in 1988, Branson, who had recently launched a Virgin airline, appeared on the BBC program “Going Live!” A viewer called in and asked him if he’d contemplated extraterrestrial ventures. “I’d love to go into space,” Branson said. “If you’re building a spacecraft, I’d love to come with you.”
When Branson learned about SpaceShipOne, he made a deal with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who had been discreetly funding Rutan: Branson, they agreed, would pitch in a million dollars, and would secure the right to adapt Rutan’s design for space tourism. A week before Rutan won the X Prize, Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. His timing was opportune. nasa’s funding was being cut, and the Space Shuttle program was sputtering out. Branson promised a ride on a spaceship to anyone with a quarter of a million dollars to spare. (Leonardo DiCaprio was among the six hundred people who signed up.)
Branson had no experience building rockets, so he contracted Rutan to do the work. The program ran into difficulties, some of them caused by Branson’s efforts to attract publicity. He’d announced that spaceflights could start as early as 2007, a wildly unrealistic projection, considering that Rutan and his team still had to design, build, test, and license two new vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Although these were being modelled on SpaceShipOne and White Knight, they had to be much bigger. SpaceShipOne could accommodate three people on board, and had a rocket that generated about twenty thousand pounds of thrust; for SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry two pilots and six passengers, the engineers calculated that they needed at least seventy thousand pounds of thrust. Propulsion is difficult to scale, and designing a viable rocket motor was giving Rutan’s team fits.
On July 26, 2007, a team of Scaled Composites engineers and technicians gathered at a site north of the Mojave airport to test their new hybrid-fuel rocket motor. A 1991 article in Aerospace America had praised hybrid-fuel rockets as “safer, more reliable, [and] more cost-effective” than rival designs. But they were not risk-free.
The engineers of the new rocket wanted to check the flow rates of nitrous oxide. At 2:30 p.m., the tank holding the nitrous oxide became overpressurized and exploded. Shrapnel sprayed in every direction. Three people died, and three others were severely injured. In a blog post, New Scientist said that the accident “raised serious questions about safety practices at Scaled.” Jim Tighe, the company’s lead aerodynamicist, told me, “It was a real blow to our confidence.” Rutan took a medical leave, citing heart difficulties.
At the time, Mark Stucky was living in Las Vegas. After four deployments to Iraq, he’d received the Air Force’s Bobby Bond Memorial Aviator Award, which cited his “incredible resourcefulness and real courage” in training the Iraqi Air Force. In 2007, he moved to Nevada to work on a highly classified program; he wrote his own obituary, in case he was in a fatal accident. His schedule was erratic, and the secrecy strained his family life. His son, Dillon, who is now twenty-nine, told me, “He would be gone for a week, and couldn’t talk about where he’d been or what he was doing.”
Stucky had bought a paraglider that he could stuff in a backpack, and he leaped off cliffsides and soared over the desert. In a 2006 book that he co-authored, “Paragliding: A Pilot’s Training Manual,” he wrote that he loved the “elegant simplicity of the sport.” His wife, Joan, accused him of having a “sickness” for flight. Stucky believed that she intended this to sound diagnostic. Several of his family members had suffered from mental illness. Stucky recalled his father, in old age, saying, “Tell your friends in the C.I.A. that those window washers aren’t fooling anybody.” His mother, Lidia, became schizophrenic. While he was working for United, she once called in a bomb threat at LAX. But Stucky had passed one psychological examination after another in the Air Force. He told Joan that she was trying to shame him about his passion.
In late 2007, he asked the president of Burt Rutan’s company, an engineer and a test pilot named Doug Shane, about opportunities at Scaled Composites. The next March, Shane invited him to Mojave for a tour of the hangar and to fly the SpaceShipTwo simulator. Stucky performed well, and afterward he wrote to Shane, “You asked me about what I have to offer aside from flying. I have a reputation for getting things done successfully and one of my strong points is an ability to ferret out the real safety issues from the imagined.” Scaled Composites, he noted, had an “unequaled ability at figuring out what the real design and flight test issues are and then successfully addressing them,” adding, “I would meld well with your existing philosophy.”
A month later, Stucky and another member of the Desert Skywalkers, the local paragliding club, met near a ridge overlooking a dry lake bed south of Las Vegas. Before jumping, Stucky had noticed a few dust devils in the distance. “I knew there was some potentially evil air out there,” he said. Not long into the flight, a funnel cloud blew out his canopy. Stucky was three hundred feet above the ground, spinning out of control. As he fell, he tried to reopen the canopy. “I was purposely not looking at the ground, because I thought it would just slow me down,” he told me. “It’s kind of like having a revolver and having somebody rushing you and you’ve got to load the revolver with one bullet. If you sit there and look at him and try to hurry, you’re probably not going to do as good of a job as if you’re just methodically looking at the bullet, putting it into the revolver, aiming, and then pulling the trigger.” Sixty feet above the ground, he pumped the canopy back open, but it was too late to arrest his fall and he slammed into the ground. The impact collapsed both his lungs, shattered a vertebra, and compressed three others. He crawled to the nearest road and flagged a motorist, who called for help.
Stucky spent the next three months in an upper-body brace, recuperating in the guest bedroom of his house. The injury further stressed his marriage. Joan insisted that he stop paragliding. “My wife had no appreciation for my love for flight,” Stucky later wrote, in the magazine Hang Gliding & Paragliding. He filed for divorce. (Joan told me that Stucky’s characterization of her was “absolutely false,” adding, “I supported him in everything he did for twenty-nine years.”)
Stucky took off for California and moved in with a woman, Cheryl Agin. She had worked in the public-affairs department at Dryden, where, she recalled to me, “the pilots were the rock stars, and he was definitely the best-looking of them all.” She went on, “He would do the coolest flybys”—low-altitude, high-speed passes—“and he would get in trouble for them, but of course we all loved it.” When Agin became involved with Stucky, she knew what she was getting into: her father had been a civilian engineer on the X-15 project. Stucky told me, “She understood that flying is a part of my core.”
After his three children learned about Agin, they blocked his calls and ignored his e-mails. He wrote a song for his elder daughter, Sascha, and paid a professional guitarist to perform it; he sent her a recording, but didn’t hear back. Dillon, who had gone to the Air Force Academy to become a pilot, transferred to U.C.L.A. He competed in track and field, and on his U.C.L.A. profile page he listed, under “personal,” only his mom and two sisters. Stucky and Agin sometimes travelled to Dillon’s track meets, but, wary of being rejected, they lurked in the bleachers.
In April, 2009, Stucky accepted a test-pilot position with Scaled Composites. His portfolio included the SpaceShipTwo program. It should have been everything he wanted. But his estrangement from his children tempered his excitement. The military had trained him to compartmentalize distractions, but, commuting forty minutes every day on an empty desert highway, he had plenty of time to contemplate how badly he missed his kids.
That August, he wrote to Dillon, “The only way I can see that I would be so shutout is that you have been convinced that I have wronged your mother and/or am a scumbag. Neither is the case. . . . My previous job required me to sometimes be less than candid about what I did and where I was. That is over. If you will allow it, I would be happy to answer any personal (not prior job-related) questions with 100% truth and then let you be the judge and jury of my fate as a father.” He received no reply.
The engineers at Scaled Composites worked out a detailed flight-test program for SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. To prove the vehicles’ airworthiness to their client, Virgin Galactic, they needed to successfully complete a couple of “captive carry” flights (SpaceShipTwo remaining mated to WhiteKnightTwo), a dozen or so “glide” flights (SpaceShipTwo, upon release from WhiteKnightTwo, gliding down for a landing), and several “powered” flights (SpaceShipTwo, upon release from WhiteKnightTwo, igniting its rocket).
Stucky and another Scaled Composites test pilot, Peter Siebold, took turns in the pilot’s seat. Siebold, who was a decade younger than Stucky, was a prodigious engineer who’d been hired by Scaled Composites before he’d even graduated from college. Stucky found him intimidatingly smart; in a 2009 e-mail, he wrote, “I can point out how to make things better, but, unlike Pete, I can’t sit down and write the code to implement them.” But, the more Stucky got to know Siebold, the more he found him to be worrisomely cocky. For aviators, confidence is an asset but arrogance is a liability. As Chuck Yeager, who started his flying career as an ace in the Second World War, wrote in his memoir, “Arrogance got more pilots in trouble than faulty equipment.”
On October 10, 2010, Siebold flew the first successful glide flight. Rutan sent out a celebratory e-mail, spurring his employees to “reach our goal” of engineering “a spaceship capable to provide the space experience to thousands of adventurers.” They were hoping to install a rocket motor soon, but their propulsion problems had yet to be solved, so Stucky and Siebold continued doing glide flights.
Stucky flew the sixteenth glide flight on September 29, 2011. The word “glide” makes these flights sound deceptively tame. Some of them were extremely challenging, part of the battle testing that SpaceShipTwo had to endure before initiating commercial service. The sixteenth glide flight was designed to assess the craft’s propensity for “flutter”—oscillations across the wings and the tail which could lead, in extreme cases, to the vehicle’s breaking apart. The engineers wanted Stucky to enter a sharp dive, targeting a maximum speed just below Mach 1. Upon release, Stucky held the stick all the way forward, as planned. But the engineers hadn’t fully accounted for such a steep angle of attack, and the tail lost lift; the spaceship suddenly flipped upside down and began spinning to the left.
Stucky counted each rotation as the plunging craft spun past the sun: One, two . . .
In other vehicles, he had often practiced entering, and recovering from, inverted spins like this. These were unpleasant and dangerous maneuvers. In 1953, Yeager was flying an X-1 when he inadvertently entered an inverted spin at eighty thousand feet. As he later told NPR, for nearly a minute he was “fighting to try to recover the airplane and stay conscious from the high rotational rates.” At twenty-five thousand feet, he regained control. Thirty-two years later, the stunt pilot who filmed Yeager’s scenes in “The Right Stuff” was doing stunts for “Top Gun” when he entered an inverted spin; he crashed and died.
A view from the cockpit of the SpaceShipTwo simulator.
Stucky knew that he had to move quickly to slow the spin. He was falling five hundred feet a second. He deployed the speed brakes and stepped on the opposite rudder pedal, but the spaceship continued to tumble: Three, four . . .
He was out of ideas, preparing to open the hatch and parachute out, when something occurred to him. A decade earlier, when Rutan was designing SpaceShipOne, he’d been deeply concerned about the vehicle reëntering the Earth’s atmosphere askew and breaking apart. In 1967, a friend of his named Mike Adams had been flying the X-15 at Mach 5 when he lost control, and reëntered the atmosphere spinning sideways. This chaotic descent generated fifteen g’s, or fifteen times the force of gravity, and the plane was pulverized in midair. As a fix, Rutan made his spaceship’s tail booms—flat panels that normally are parallel with the base of the fuselage—movable. When they were raised perpendicular to the fuselage, the craft slowed down and started descending like a shuttlecock. Rutan called his innovation the “feather.” In the documentary “Black Sky,” Brian Binnie, a former Scaled Composites test pilot, calls the feather “the angel’s wings on this vehicle.”
Stucky slid the feather handle to the “unlock” position, and raised the feather. The vehicle immediately stopped tumbling forward. Stucky regained control and glided to Earth. The angel’s wings had saved him, his co-pilot, and a flight-test engineer sitting in the back from almost certain death.
One evening, Stucky and Agin, who married in 2011, had me over to their house for a drink. They live in a hillside subdivision overlooking Palmdale, a city south of Mojave. We had been sitting around a fire pit in their back yard when Stucky invited me to see the cockpit video from glide flight sixteen. I followed him to his office computer. He pulled up the video, and the footage was upsetting: Stucky straining to avoid passing out; hazard alerts beeping; red lights flashing on the cockpit console; the horizon whipping past. Agin, a stern, fit woman with a pixieish haircut, watched over Stucky’s shoulder, swallowing tears.
He paused the video. “Is this emotional for you?” he asked, sounding sharper than he intended.
“It’s O.K.,” Agin replied.
They didn’t discuss the dangers of his job much. Stucky told me that Agin had an “overinflated opinion” of him, and that he didn’t want to frighten her. She told me, separately, “He’s gifted”; one of her friends, a photographer at Dryden, had flown with Stucky and told her that Stucky was the best pilot she’d ever gone up with. Agin tried not to worry about him. Years ago, when he came home with documents for her to sign, detailing medical-emergency protocols in the event of a crash, she broke down. “I just had never even thought about the possibility that that would happen,” she said.
Stucky said, “We’re test pilots of spaceships. As a Marine Corps colonel once told me, ‘If you want to be safe, go be a shoe salesman at Sears.’ ”
Scaled Composites began rocket-powered flights on April 28, 2013. Peter Siebold was supposed to pilot the first one, but he broke his heel in a paragliding accident, and Stucky took his place. The night before the flight, he and Agin drove to Mojave and checked into a hotel by the airport. Stucky woke up at 3 a.m., ate yogurt and string cheese, and reported to the hangar for a briefing.
Quelle: The New Yorker