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.
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(Photograph: Dan Winters/The New Yorker)