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December 28, 2018
 

Astronaut Dreams made possible at Mojave Air & Spaceport!

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Cathy Hansen
special to Aerotech News

White Knight Two and SpaceShipTwo aloft.

First crewed spaceflight to launch from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011

Exciting dreams come true at Mojave Air and Spaceport!

Dec. 13, 2018, produced a calm, crisp morning and there was excitement and an edgy sense of accomplishment hanging in the air around the Virgin Galactic team who had worked so diligently to see this day of seeing SpaceShipTwo climb into space.

The attempt to soar 264,000 feet, or 50 miles, above the surface of Earth, beyond the boundary of what the U.S. government deems as space was a milestone for the team and TheSpaceShipCompany at the Mojave Air & Spaceport.

When Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize, Fédération Aéronautique Internationale or the International distance was set at 62 miles above the Earth, 100-kilometers or 328,000-feet. It depends on which organization you ask where “space” begins. For international “standards”, the Kármán Line is at 100 kilometers above sea level. However, NASA and the U.S. Air Force use 50 miles above sea level for certification)

The December test flight had two pilots onboard, four NASA research payloads and a mannequin named Annie as a stand-in passenger. They reached an altitude of 52 miles above the Earth and a speed of Mach 2.9. The sonic boom was heard by all on the ground as Unity rapidly glided back to Runway 30 at Mojave.

SpaceShipTwo ‘Unity’ gliding back to Earth.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, came to Mojave the day before with his family. He is passionate about the thrill of the human spirit going to space and to experience the sight and majesty of planet Earth from above. When the company begins their commercial space service, they will be taking anyone willing to pay $250,000 to witness a “million dollar view!”

For these lucky few, being in the black sky, to feel weightlessness and to look down and see the curvature of our beautiful home planet will be emotional, spiritual and the greatest of inspirations.

Nicola Pecile and Mike Masucci, were piloting the mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, which would carry the rocket ship, SpaceShipTwo, up to its release point. In SpaceShipTwo were two U.S. Marine Corps veterans; pilot, Mark “Forger” Stucky, and co-pilot, the former NASA astronaut, C. J. Sturckow.

Sturckow is a Marine Corps fighter pilot veteran and flew a total of 41 combat missions during Operation Desert Storm.

In 1994, he was selected by NASA to be an astronaut. He flew four space shuttle flights, two as pilot and two as commander. Sturckow has logged more than 1,200 hours in space. C.J.’s first shuttle flight was as pilot on board STS-88 Endeavour — Dec. 4-15, 1998, the first International Space Station assembly mission; next came STS-105 Discovery (Aug. 10-22, 2001); then as crew commander he flew STS-117 Atlantis (June 8-22, 2007). His last shuttle flight was as commander, on STS-128 Discovery (Aug. 28-Sept. 11, 2009), was the 128th Shuttle mission and the 30th to the International Space Station. Sturckow retired from the U.S. Marine Corps as a colonel while on board the space station in September 2009. The crew delivered 18,500 pounds of hardware and performed three spacewalks. STS-128 returned to land at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., having traveled 5.7 million miles in 14 days.

Mark Stucky with a hang glider.

At the Mojave Air and Spaceport, anxiety filled the huge audience on the flightline, as the mother-ship, with SpaceShipTwo attached underneath, lifted from runway 30 at 7:11 a.m. Watching them climb out was a beautiful and uplifting sight to behold.

Stucky remained focused on the flight, but knew in his heart that this was the day that his dream of becoming an astronaut would be fulfilled.

From his early childhood, Stucky was enthralled with the idea of going into space. At the age of three, he watched on his father’s television set as John Glenn’s rocket left the launch pad. The mesmerizing image stayed with him all through his childhood. Again, Stucky was absorbed in the thoughts of going to space when he was in grade school and read an old National Geographic which had an article by U.S. Air Force pilot Joseph Walker about the X-15 — half missile and half airplane. Walker described an X-15 flight: “Acceleration from that inferno in the tail pipe pinned me back in my seat.”

His adventuresome spirit came to life at the age of 13 while reading another article about hang-gliding and somehow, he convinced his father to split the cost of a hang-glider. Once he tasted the magic of flying, there was no stopping him — he was in love with the whole idea of being in the air, rather than on the ground.

He graduated Kansas State University with a major in Physical Science, served in the U.S. Marines and received training as an F-4 Phantom pilot. Later he worked at NASA and this outstanding pilot, with the eyesight of a hawk, applied with them to be an astronaut and twice he almost made it, but almost didn’t accomplish his dream.

A “Million dollar view” from space — the curvature of Earth.

He resigned from NASA, flew for the airlines for a while, and then he went active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 2003. A year later, he deployed to Iraq and served four tours of duty. While in Iraq, he watched a broadcast of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne launch in June 2004. Then and there, the thoughts of becoming an astronaut filled his head, as he watched Mike Melvill rocket upwards at Mach 3 in SpaceShipOne.

In April, 2009, Stucky accepted a test-pilot position with Scaled Composites. His portfolio included the SpaceShipTwo program.

A week before Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites won the X Prize in 2004, Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. He had made a deal with Paul Allen, who was financing the SpaceShipOne project, that he would secure the right to adapt Rutan’s design for space tourism.

Branson knew nothing about building or flying spaceships and contracted with Rutan’s Scaled Composites in Mojave to design, build and test a new mother-ship, White Knight Two and a much larger space vehicle, able to carry two pilots and six passengers, SpaceShipTwo.

Celebrating a successful first spaceflight for SS2 is Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson (center) with new Commercial Astronauts, Frederick W. Rick “CJ” Sturckow and Mark “Forger.”

Stucky’s perseverance of keeping the dream alive in his mind paid off, after suffering thorough many obstacles during his life, even a life threatening hang gliding accident, his dream of space came true on that beautiful December morning.

The flight of SpaceShipTwo ‘Unity’ was the first crewed flight to launch from U.S. soil since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.

After the flight, an additional “love is in the air” wish came true that morning when Stucky handed Branson a small box. A flight-test engineer on Stucky’s team, named Brandon Parrish, had asked Stucky if he would carry an engagement ring into space for him. Parrish called his girlfriend, Veronica McGowan, a fellow-engineer, up onto the stage, Branson handed the small box to Parrish and he proposed to McGowan. A truly out-of-this-world proposal!

Wishing a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful 2019 to all of our fantastic and supportive readers!
 

Sir Richard Branson looks on as Brandon Parrish proposes to Veronica McGowan with an engagement ring that had just returned from space.




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