Two Space History Makers Earn Their Wings
February 12, 2019
The two affable NASA veterans - more commonly known by their nicknames "Forger" and "C.J." - held decades of aviation expertise when they successfully launched into space on Dec. 13, 2018 aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two, named the "VSS Unity." The historic spaceflight marked the nation's return to space on an American-made rocket - a feat not achieved since the Space Shuttle's final mission in 2011.
The epic achievement was lauded during a Feb. 7 presentation ceremony within the packed atrium at the Department of Transportation in Washington, D.C. (View a video of the DOT presentation here.) There, Stucky and Sturckow became two of only four Americans to receive FAA Astronaut Wings. The FAA requires that the Astronaut Wings be awarded only to crewmembers who fly beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth on a launch vehicle that the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has licensed or permitted.
During its test flight, the VSS Unity reached an altitude of 51.39 miles, or 271,340 feet. Guided by its pilots, Virgin Galactic's vehicle returned from space and safely glided back to the spaceport. "It was picture perfect," said Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao. She was joined on stage by Stucky and Sturckow, Virgin Galactic Founder Sir Richard Branson, House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and the FAA's Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation Wayne Monteith.
"You are all here to witness this historic milestone," the Secretary said, describing Sturckow and Stucky as "true American patriots." A four-time space shuttle astronaut, Sturckow is one of only two people to visit the International Space Station four times - twice as a pilot and twice as a commander. Before joining NASA, he served as a pilot in the Marine Corps and flew combat missions during Operation Desert Storm. His latest achievement makes him the first astronaut to hold both commercial space and Naval Aviator Wings.
Stucky - the 568th human in space - has flown flight tests for aircraft, ranging from blimps and paragliders to the SR-71 Blackbird, for the Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, NASA, and international partners. At 15, he taught himself to hang glide in the flint hills of Kansas. He later joined NASA as a research pilot at the John Space Center.
"These astronaut wings celebrate more than technical achievement," Chao said. "They celebrate 'grit.' Virgin Galactic displayed grit when it persevered despite delays and setbacks - and our pilots served in the U.S. Marines, where 'quit' is not in the vocabulary, but 'grit' certainly is." The previous recipients of the Astronaut Wings, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, were recognized after their flight on Oct. 4, 2004. That year, Scaled Composites was awarded the $10 million Ansari XPrize when the Mojave, Calif.-based aerospace company sent the reusable SpaceShipOne on two successful FAA-licensed commercial spaceflights.
Private companies, such as Virgin Galactic, which Branson founded in 2004, are "creating an era of innovation that historians may one day call, 'The Rocket Renaissance,'" Chao added. The nation has regained its position as number one with a record number of commercial launches in 2017. AST manages the licensing, overseeing, and regulation of all U.S. commercial space activities. Commercial launches rose from 26 in 2017 to 32 in 2018. Three launches have already taken place in 2019 and another 38 launches are scheduled for this year. Space innovation is also driving demand for more license sites and the department has licensed 11 non-federal spaceports, with the most recent site located in Colorado.
During his remarks, Branson acknowledged that the new age of space exploration has not come without risks. "The road for all of us has been challenging," said the British entrepreneur, garbed in his signature leather bomber jacket and jeans. The nation is "helping to open space for the benefit of humankind," with some assistance from "the little guy from the UK." Technological developments in the commercial space industry have occurred through partnerships between the government and the private sector. "We flew with the blessing of the FAA," Branson said, adding that the agency has established a regulatory framework that allows for "innovation while prioritizing safety."
He hailed the accomplishments of Stucky and Sturckow, two "courageous test pilots," and their peers. "We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants," Branson said. "Together, we democratize space to change the world for the better."
McCarthy, whose congressional district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, thanked Branson for adding "new chapters" to the space innovation history of the Mojave Desert. "It shows we still possess qualities for achieving new greatness," McCarthy said.
He lauded the VSS Unity crewmembers' qualities of courage, curiosity, and grit. "It takes a rare reservoir of courage to pilot a spacecraft," McCarthy said. The men are part of the national legacy of "heroic explorers," including the brave pioneers who perished during their missions. He repeated President Ronald Reagan's words following the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy - "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave."
After the DOT event, Virgin Galactic donated the hybrid engine, RocketMotorTwo that powered the VSS Unity to the Air and Space Museum. The rocket motor will eventually be displayed in the museum's "Future of Spaceflight" exhibition, scheduled to open 2024.
Said Stucky in an earlier statement, "Receiving commercial astronaut wings is an honor for me as it is acknowledgement of a personal achievement." He commended Branson's vision, the spacecraft's designers, and "other extremely bright and hard-working engineers at Scaled Composites."
"These wings are really dedicated to them," Stucky said. During a photo with Stuckow, he playfully flashed bunny ears behind his fellow astronaut. The pair was approached by audience members who included 27 students from Eliot-Hine and Stuart-Hobson middle schools and 36 students from Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C. Children posed for group photos with Branson and the astronauts and collected their autographs.
Sharon Boesen, a program support specialist in the FAA's Office of Civil Rights, helped chaperone her 12-year-old twins, David and Josephine, and their classmates from Eliot-Hine and Stuart-Hobson schools. Last year, the children attended Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. "My father-in-law is an astronaut," Boesen said. "Space is a huge part of our family. I'm very excited for everything that Virgin Galactic is doing."
Mariana Salazar, a 12-year-old sixth-grader, imagined herself as an astronaut. "I would like to take a solo mission," she mused.
As a space veteran, Sturckow understood such passion well - He's ready for his next endeavor. "It was a great flight and I can't wait to do it again."