‘Failure will be a catastrophe’: Navy pilot tests spaceships for Virgin Galactic

For many people, the work of test pilots has the same fascination as that of BASE jumpers and free soloists. We want to make up stories in our heads about the kind of person who embraces the motivation, the risk and even the recklessness that the activity involves, and we also want to know if we are like them – even a bit. New York writer Nicholas Schmidle, who spent four years as a reporter in Richard Branson’s space flight adventure Virgin Galactic, satisfies all these curiosities in “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut” . He follows, among others, Mark “Forger” Stucky, who comes to Virgin Galactic after stints with the Marines, NASA and the Air Force; and works to redraw the limits of possibility while struggling to maintain bonds with adult children who quickly withdraw. At the center of this tale, Schmidle revisits his relationship with his own father, retired Lieutenant-General Robert “Rooster” Schmidle, formerly chief of aviation for the Marine Corps. His intimate and empathetic journey with Stucky, says Nicholas Schmidle, has changed his understanding of the harsh edges and extremes that accompany “life lived on the edge of the envelope”.

– Hope Hodge Seck

The following is an excerpt from “Test Gods”.

A fraction of a second after starting the mission, Mark Stucky knew something was wrong at all. Pushing the stick forward, he had expected to enter an aggressive dive, like a kamikaze bomber rushing towards its target – in this case the dark California desert. But now his spaceship’s tail was stuck and starting to drift, twisting his carefully calibrated dive into an unintentional tail flop.

The computer on board the spaceship was going crazy – sound alerts, flashing yellow and red lights. Growling, Stucky tugged on the staff to try to stabilize himself. Nothing happened. He was now upside down and was floating out of his seat 40,000 feet in the air. The straps of his harness dug into his shoulders. The ship was falling rapidly.

Thought.

An average human brain weighs about three pounds and contains nearly one hundred billion neurons; an almond-shaped cluster near the brainstem manages our response to fear. Most people panic when they are afraid. Their palms sweat, their hearts pound, and their minds freeze – at the precise moment when sharpness is needed most.

Stucky wasn’t most people.

He flipped the pitch trim switch, hoping the pair of horizontal stabilizers on the tail booms would bite the air. No answer. He reached out and switched to the emergency trim system. No answer.

Already upside down, the spaceship began to spin. Stucky counted each rotation as the diving craft passed in front of the sun.

One. Two …

Stucky remained almost mysteriously calm. Clinical. He found a strange kind of solace in moments like this. His job was dangerous enough without panic getting in the way. He was a test pilot, determined to navigate unexplored aerodynamic realms so that his fellow engineers could define the capabilities and limitations of the spacecraft; As Arthur C. Clarke said, “The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to venture a little further into the impossible.”

Each test flight offered a new adventure. But “widening the envelope”, as the test pilots described their job, was not adventurous in itself. It was a methodical process that relied as much on the discipline and rigor of the scientist as on the clever improvisation of the daredevil.

Fly, test, rate, adjust; fly, test, rate, adjust.

Stucky rummaged through a mental catalog of personal experiences and training manuals and everything he had read or heard from another pilot in search of something useful, a way to save his ship. – and his life.

He deployed the speed brakes. Nothing. Step on the opposite rudder pedal. Nothing. The spacecraft continued to fall and fire at an alarming rate, losing 1,000 feet in elevation every two seconds. The sun continued to flash in the cockpit windows.

Three four …

“We’re in a left turn,” co-pilot Clint Nichols announced over the radio, the flat voice of a clerk asking for a cleanup in aisle four.

Stucky had practiced entering and recovering from reverse tricks like this many times in other trades. However, these were unpleasant and dangerous maneuvers. In 1953, Chuck Yeager was piloting an X-1 – the same type of rocket he had used to break the sound barrier – when it entered a reverse spin at 80,000 feet and spent nearly a minute in fight to try to retrieve the plane. and stay aware of high turnover rates. “He finally 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 entered a spin. inverted, crashed and died.

Stucky was confused: he couldn’t understand why the tail had stalled. Baffled, he felt sickened that the last option to avoid near-certain death was to require him to unbuckle, crawl down, open the hatch, jump, throw his parachute, and watch the spaceship. Richard Branson’s multi-million dollar bill shattering on the desert floor and, perhaps with it, Branson’s dream of making his space tourism business, Virgin Galactic, a reality.

Stucky was chasing his own dream. He had spent nearly forty years trying to become an astronaut. He had been in the Marines, Air Force and NASA, and he was now working for an experimental aviation company, Scaled Composites, which Branson, a British showboating mogul, had hired to build and test. a spaceship for commercial purposes. It was beyond Branson’s dream to send passengers into space aboard this homemade craft they called SpaceShipTwo. But the zany are often the ones who made history. When Norman Mailer first embarked on his book on the Apollo program, he couldn’t decide whether Apollo was “the noblest expression of the twentieth century or the quintessential statement of our fundamental madness.”

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 get people into space, and Branson was clear he wanted to be “the first of three contractors to fight to get people into space to get there.”

Each had distinct visions for the journey. Virgin had pioneered a unique air launch system – a mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo, had been designed to transport SpaceShipTwo to around 45,000 feet so that the rocket did not waste its energy traversing the dense, lower atmosphere – while others used a more traditional vessel. ground launch system.

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

Blue Origin shared Virgin’s suborbital altitude target for its first manned flights, but also intended to explore deep space. SpaceX was arguably the most ambitious: Musk wanted to colonize Mars, at least thirty-four million kilometers away.

But perhaps the most striking distinction came down to their belief in the human spirit. Blue Origin and SpaceX were run by tech assistants, algorithmic geniuses who trusted in mathematical power to eliminate human error, to someday make fallibility obsolete. Virgin was analog, and despite the futurism of SpaceShipTwo’s mission, the vehicle was relatively straightforward – 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: it was the danger of manned space flight. “If you want to build confidence in space, don’t try to send people over there,” said David Cowan, a venture capitalist who has invested in several satellite trading companies. “Any failure will be a disaster.”

The day was announced like that. On the trail, lime-colored fire trucks were ready to go. Doug Shane, chairman of Scaled, spoke the words company insiders would recognize as code for impending disaster. When he said “Blue Zebra,” his colleagues knew the worst was to be expected.

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

***

Four years later, Stucky and I were sitting around the fire pit in his backyard with glasses of whiskey when he asked if I wanted to watch the cockpit video of this flight. The coyotes howled in the distance. His wife, Cheryl Agin, drank prosecco and whispered to the two Chihuahuas at her feet.

Of course, I said.

Stucky led me through the house. He was fifty-seven, with a loose-legged walk, tousled salt and pepper hair, and sunken tanned cheeks. In other contexts, he could pass for a retired beachcomber. He wore the smirk of someone who was sure he was enjoying himself more than everyone else.

Plates and inscribed photos hung on the walls of his home office – “best pilot I’ve ever known”, flight instructor of the year, “blue sky and yippee kaye”. Cartoon stars decorated the ceiling fan. Stucky sat down behind his computer and picked up the file. He filled the screen.

The video was difficult to watch – Stucky was trying to avoid passing out; danger alert beep; flashing red lights on the cockpit console; the horizon passed.

Agin, his second wife, had crept into the room and stood over his shoulder, swallowing tears. She had never seen the video.

He hit pause. “Is this touching for you?” He asked, sounding sharper than he expected.

“It’s okay,” she replied.

They didn’t discuss much of the dangers of his job. Death was one of those things test pilots didn’t like to think about. It was “a nasty thing to think about,” Neil Armstrong said before going to the moon.

But Stucky didn’t: he was a test pilot for an experimental rocket program, an extremely risky venture. Four men had already died for the cause, including Stucky’s best friend. “A Marine Corps colonel once said to me, ‘If you want to be safe, go be a shoe salesman at Sears,’” Stucky said.

Stucky hit Play, and we were back in the middle of the flight, watching him pull and pull the controls and hear him tire of the negative g’s as the spaceship continued to spin and fall from the sky.

Test of the gods, “published by Henry Holt and Company, will be released on May 4, 2021.

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