Astronomy and Space News - Astro Watch: Virgin Galactic Pilots Awarded Commercial Astronaut Wings

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Sunday, February 10, 2019

Virgin Galactic Pilots Awarded Commercial Astronaut Wings

Virgin Galactic pilots Mark Stucky (second from right) and Frederick Sturckow (at center) pose with Deputy Secretary of the Department of Transportation Jeff Rosen (at left), Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson after being awarded Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Commercial Astronaut wings on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 at the U.S. Department of Transportation in Washington, DC. (Virgin Galactic)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao on Thursday pinned FAA Astronaut Wings on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crewmembers, Test Pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Fredrick “CJ” Sturckow. Last year’s historic spaceflight marked the nation’s return to space on an American-made rocket, and paves the way for future travel to space with commercial spaceflight participants.

“We are entering a new and exciting frontier in our nation’s space activities,” said Secretary Chao. “These wings represent a remarkable achievement for these crewmembers and tell all Americans that their access to the wonders of space may be within their reach.” 

On December 13, 2018, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, named the “VSS Unity” was carried aloft by the WhiteNight Two carrier aircraft from the Mojave, California Air and Space Port. With Stucky and Sturckow onboard the VSS Unity, the WhiteNight Two gradually climbed to an altitude of almost 40,000 feet where it released the spacecraft. Stucky and Sturckow lit the engine and guided the VSS Unity 51.39 miles (271,340 feet) above the Earth and into space. The vehicle returned from space and safely glided back to the spaceport, guided by its pilots. The VSS Unity was manufactured in America by The Spaceship Company, a California-based company owned by Virginia Galactic and headquartered in the Mojave dessert.

Sir Richard Branson, the Founder of Virgin Group said, “The U.S. leads the world both in the exploration of space and in creating the conditions for a new space age, where it will operate alongside and in partnership with the private sector. While today’s awards ceremony is, of course, a proud moment for our wonderful pilots and the whole Virgin Galactic team, it is also symbolic of an enabling regulatory framework that allows for innovation while prioritizing safety. It is this which has allowed us to pursue our dreams and which will ultimately underpin our commercial success as we seek to democratize space for the benefit of humankind.” 

Stucky and Sturckow now become two of only four Americans to receive FAA Astronaut Wings. In 2004, Scaled Composites was awarded the $10 million Ansari XPrize when it sent the reusable SpaceShipOne on two successful FAA-licensed commercial spaceflights. The test pilots of those flights, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, received their FAA Astronaut Wings directly after the last flight of the vehicle on Oct. 4, 2004.

Receiving the wings, Stucky commented: “Receiving commercial astronaut wings is an honor for me as it is acknowledgment of a personal achievement. But it goes beyond that, it’s really an acknowledgment of a company achievement of Sir Richard Branson’s vision which was made possible by the conceptual design genius of Burt Rutan, the detailed design of Jim Tighe, Bob Morgan, and numerous other extremely bright and hard-working engineers at Scaled Composites, and then ultimately improved upon, built, and flight tested by the men and women of The Spaceship Company and Virgin Galactic. And these wings are really dedicated to them.”

The FAA is responsible for licensing, overseeing, and regulating all U.S. commercial space transportation activities. Among the many FAA requirements for Astronaut Wings is the requirement that the wings are only to be awarded to crewmembers who fly beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth on a launch vehicle licensed (or permitted) by FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. A statute mile is one land-measured mile.

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