We’re ready to complete pre-flight preparation for our next spaceflight once we set our new flight test window. We temporarily minimized our footprint in New Mexico following the new two-week health order put in place – you can read more here. This flight will represent a number of firsts: it will be our first spaceflight from our commercial headquarters at Spaceport America; it’s the first-time humans will fly into space from the state of New Mexico; and our left-seat Pilot for the flight, CJ Sturckow, will become the first astronaut to have flown into space from three different U.S states.
CJ was in the cockpit during our first flight to space in December 2018, and he had already completed four flights to the International Space Station during his time as a NASA Astronaut before joining Virgin Galactic – our next flight will represent his sixth time flying into space. In this blog, we discover how he first became a pilot before training as an astronaut, and ask him if the view of Earth from space is as incredible as the first time, every time.
Can you remember when you decided you wanted to become a Pilot?
I always thought aviation and space were cool. When I was a kid, a friend of my dad’s took us flying in his small plane. However, my interests developed elsewhere. I became involved with off-road racing in Baja, California, which led me to the Cal Poly Society of Automotive Engineers. An Engineering Professor observed me organizing the team for our next race and thought I might have some leadership ability. He encouraged me to join the Marine Corps and become a pilot. I stayed in touch with that same professor and he was there in Mojave when Mark Stucky and I flew SpaceShipTwo Unity to space in December 2018.
Once you knew you wanted to be a Pilot, what steps did you take to realize your dream?
I had been racing dirt track stock cars at Santa Maria Speedway and Oildale Speedway near Bakersfield. When I decided to join the Marines, I thought it might be a good idea to take some flying lessons. I sold my stock car to pay for a few flights and then finally soloed an aircraft. While at flight school they expect you to fly the Navy way [the Navy way simply means to fly the way they train you – not based on prior learnings], but having some prior flying experience was helpful.
How did you end up at NASA?
After flight school, I served in the Fleet Marine Force for four years flying the F/A-18 Hornet. Our squadron, VMFA-333, was deployed to the Western Pacific for seven months. During this time, I was lucky enough to receive training from some of the best mentors in places like Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. When we returned, I was sent to the Navy Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as TOPGUN, where I was trained to lead large fleets of up to 30 planes. Following eight months stationed in Bahrain, I was sent to the USAF Test Pilot School, where pilots are trained to apply their operational skills to evaluate new aircraft and systems. Following this, I reported to the Naval Air Warfare Center – Aircraft Division at Pax River for duty as an F/A-18 test pilot in the areas of loads, flutter, carrier suitability, flying qualities, and performance. It was at this point that I was selected for NASA.
What did you accomplish while at NASA?
A common misperception is that NASA Astronauts only spend time training for their own missions. Actually, most of my 18 years in Houston were spent supporting other missions. I worked as a capsule communicator (CAPCOM) in mission control for a majority of those years. I also led the support operations at Kennedy Space Center, strapping in crews for launch and then getting them off the Shuttle after landing. In between missions, I had leadership roles in the Shuttle and International Space Station (“ISS”) branches. Finally, I served as the Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office. Without dedicated team members performing all of these supporting functions, the NASA spaceflights wouldn’t happen.
What’s a normal day at work for a Virgin Galactic Pilot?
Virgin Galactic Pilots have similar collateral duties to the ones at NASA. I’ve been with Virgin Galactic for seven years now and while I have flown to space as a Pilot here, most of my energy has actually been focused on working with our subject matter experts and fellow pilots to maintain the SpaceShipTwo publications. We are always learning better ways to operate the vehicle and that information has to be documented. I also serve as the Pilot Liaison to the propulsion and crew station teams. Other Virgin Galactic Pilots are responsible for flight test, avionics, safety, training, and VMS Eve publications. We also have to maintain currency in single and multi-engine aircraft, as well as gliders.
You flew to the ISS four times on the Space Shuttle and once into space on SpaceShipTwo Unity. What’s special about the view from Unity when compared to your previous flights?
The view of Earth is actually much clearer from SpaceShipTwo. You’re still in space but not flying quite as high as the ISS so you can pick out extra detail.
What are you most looking forward to on the next Virgin Galactic flight?
We’re most looking forward to operating the complete end-to-end Space Flight System (SFS) from New Mexico. Virgin Galactic has twice demonstrated the success of the Space Flight System design by flying to space twice from Mojave. Following this accomplishment, the team packed up all of the necessary equipment and personnel, moving them 830 miles eastward to Spaceport America, which was an enormous task! Since moving, we’ve completed two important glide test flights from New Mexico to validate some technical updates to the vehicle and familiarise ourselves with the airspace and manage integrations with all ground-based agencies involved in flight operations. Once we have our new test flight window set the team will fly SpaceShipTwo Unity to space from New Mexico and then we’ll do it again with teammates in the cabin on a subsequent flight.
What are the main objectives of this test flight?
This will be the first opportunity for the propulsion team to validate New Mexico powered flight operations. They have already performed several positioning exercises of their equipment, as well as a nitrous oxide tanking exercise. About a week before the flight, they will perform a full wet mission rehearsal where they will top off the forward pressurant tank with helium and then fill the main oxidizer tank with nitrous oxide to verify they are able to hit their loading targets for a powered flight. They will then reclaim the N2O and begin preparations for the flight.
The team has made upgrades to the horizontal stabilizers (known as H-Stabs), which are designed to enhance performance of the spaceship during powered flight. The team had already been working on this system for the next spaceship and it is great to be able to bring that hardware online early with SpaceShipTwo Unity. The system has performed well during the two glide flights, and this next flight will verify performance during rocket powered flight.
The spaceship interiors team will also be initiating the seat recline feature on our passenger seats for the first time in zero gravity to test the system before we progress to having passengers on board. While we have flown passenger seats on previous flights, this will be the first time in flight where we actively recline the seats once in space. For this first test of the seat recline in a space environment, we will have instrumented test mannequins strapped in.
The payloads team will be flying three NASA payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program too. That means that on this flight, rather than stopping the vehicle pitch in the inverted position (“upside down”) with all the windows of SpaceShipTwo Unity pointed at the Earth, we will instead pitch 270 degrees to get to the entry attitude as soon as possible. This maneuver will maximize time for the payloads to remain in data collection mode until just prior to re-entry. That’s one of the great things about our system, because it’s Pilot-flown we’re able to fly different mission profiles and meet the needs of our passengers in the cabin – whether that’s payloads or people.
In the months leading up to this flight our engineering and maintenance teams have been working hard to prepare both our mothership, VMS Eve and SpaceShipTwo Unity for the flight. It will be great to validate that their efforts have been highly successful to prepare the SFS for this flight and subsequent test flights.
Are you looking forward to flying Future Astronauts in the future?
Absolutely. Once you’ve flown in space yourself, you can’t wait to share that experience with someone else! Everyone at Virgin Galactic is excited about this upcoming milestone which brings us one step closer to our ultimate goal of running commercial flight operations and make space accessible to all.