Episode 82- Mark “Forger” Stucky and becoming a Rocket Man

Mark Stucky, the lead test pilot for SpaceShipTwo. “As a Marine Corps colonel once told me,” Stucky said, “‘If you want to be safe, go be a shoe salesman at Sears.’ ”
Photograph by Dan Winters for The New Yorker

On December 13th, 2018 test pilot Mark “Forger” Stucky piloted SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s tourism spaceship into space for the first time after years and years of testing and many set backs. He and his co-pilot Rick “CJ” Sturckow had a “long burn” and reached 51 miles above the Earth (over 270,000′), and reached mach 2.9. It was a historical moment in the modern space race being waged by billionaires Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson.   Mark is a modern day Chuck Yeager- if it flies, he’s flown it. He began flying hang gliders in 1974 and has over 10,000 hours in over 200 different types of aircraft- including sailplanes, paragliders, fighters, transports, blimps, spaceships and has uniquely flown more than 1,000 hours a piece in the F-4 Phantom, F-16, F-18 and T-38 and even flew the SR-71 before that program was shut down. Remember that scene in Top Gun when Tom Cruise flips upside down over a Russian fighter and takes a picture? Well Mark has ACTUALLY done that! But Hollywood could never do justice to the life he’s lived- one replete with moon-shot type risk, tragedy, unbelievable accomplishments, incredible talent and dedication and after 40 years of perseverence he got to experience what he’s been chasing since he was in his early teens- going into space. If this episode doesn’t make your head spin you don’t have a pulse. Enjoy.

The New Yorker article I reference in the interview that you MUST read: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/08/20/virgin-galactics-rocket-man/amp

The news release about the flight to space on December 13th: https://apnews.com/659f385710cc46fdb381c5f6dfbb6573

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Show Notes: (these are the questions we ran through for the show)

  • Mark your resume and achievements is well beyond ridiculous but before we get to that, this Thursday the 13thyou co-piloted with Rick “CJ” Sturckow the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket to 51 miles above the Earth, considered the boundary of space, and reached mach 2.9- three times the speed of sound. I can’t imagine putting a flight like this into words, but can you try?
  • Mark you’ve flown hanggliders, paragliders, sailplanes, fighters, transports, blimps, and obviously most recently spaceships, including I believe uniquely over 1,000 hours a piece in the F-4, F-16, F-18 and T-38 so clearly “pilot” would be how I would describe you, but if someone asked you at a party what you do how do you answer?
  • There was an article in the New Yorker printed in August about you titled “Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man” that I can honestly say is one of the most riveting long-form reads I’ve come across in years. It documents the modern space race going on between Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceX and Blue Origin are pursuing a vertical-launch scheme, like we’ve seen in the movies. You say in the article “It’s automated,” “They’ve got some astronauts, but I don’t know what the hell they’re going to do besides act like they’re doing something.” Can you explain this difference (automation- “Spam in a can”)?
  • Take us through Virgin’s plan (WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo) and how it all works (difference in “sub orbital” vs orbital, costs, engines, ….)
  • In 2014 your best friend Mike Alsbury was killed when he made a critical human error, you watched the whole thing from mission control. You say in the article that the rocket is the most fearsome thing you have piloted in over 40 years of flying…and many experts have said these projects are “irresponsibly risky.” Is taking rich people into space a worthy objective, and is it worth the risk?
  • Lets roll the clock back. I understand an article in National Geographic inspired you to get into Hang gliding and in fact there’s a photo of you launching in Kansas, where you went to college in 1974 in the New Yorker article. We just did an episode on the history of Hang gliding, I’m assuming this is the same Nat Geo Article that made hang gliding a national obsession? Talk about those early days flying…
  • Your dad was a Mennonite and while he supported your early fascination with the stars and flight, he knew the only way in was via the military, which obviously conflicts with those beliefs. But after college you defied him and joined the Marines. I think a lot of kids, especially during that time were fascinated with being an astronaut, but you actually became an astronaut. Where do you think your drive and persistence come from?
  • In 1985 you graduate Top Gun school, you were flying on a patrol mission over the sea of Japan, spotted a Russian bomber, caught up to it, flipped upside down and snapped a photograph- Mark this sounds a lot like a famous scene in the movie! Care to comment?
  • Then you transitioned from the military to NASA in the late 80’s and ended up where Chuck Yeager spent most of his career…tell me about being a test pilot?
  • Then in the 90’s drones come along, funding for spaceships dries up, and you find yourself flying commercially for United and selling mortgages. I’m going to make a wild guess that this wasn’t exactly how you saw your life going?
  • So…You join the Air Force in 2003 and head to Iraq…and then in 2004 while sitting in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces watch Burt Rutan’s “SpaceShipOne” go to 62 miles above the Earth. What did this moment mean for you?
  • In 2007, after 4 deployments to Iraq, and a Bobby Bond Aviator award you move to the Mojave to work on some highly classified stuff, you get back into paragliding and even co-author a manual of paragliding which is still popular today, but it sounds like your family life begins to take a dive. By 2009 your three children won’t even talk to you. How do you balance a family and such lofty aspirations?
  • And then you have a bad crash paragliding in Vegas…let’s talk reserves and PLF, as I understand you’ve got maybe a unique view there?
  • I want to explore a sentence in the article about another pilot you begin flying with in 2009, Peter Siebold: “For aviators, confidence is an asset but arrogance is a liability. As Chuck Yeager wrote in his memoir, “Arrogance got more pilots in trouble than faulty equipment.”
  • You start doing a LOT of test flights for Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan’s company behind the engineering of Virgin’s rocket ships. Tell us about the most harrowing flight during those years?
  • Tell me about “Transonic” flights and why it’s the “Bermuda triangle of airspeed”?
  • How do you stay current during the LONG periods of testing and downtime? The article talks about all kinds of G-Force training and stick time- any cross-over to paragliding?
  • Let’s go back to your friend Mike Alsbury, who made a life-ending human mistake on a test flight in 2014. The fallout from that sounded like it almost ended the whole Virgin Galactic program. What happened and how can we as pilots avoid making these kinds of mistakes? Takeaways to PG?
  • As we already know in a way how this story plays out with you just flying to the edge of space on Thursday looking back over your long and storied carrier- if you could change one thing, what would it be?

“To paraphrase Harrison Storms, the North American Aviation project manager for the X-15 as well as Apollo, we need to work with thoughtful courage and not be blinded by fearful safety.”

Mentioned in this episode:

Paul Guschlbauer, Ken MacDonald, Myles Connolly, Burt Rutan, Rick “CJ” Sturckow, Bruce Weaver, Nate Scales, Richard Branson, Sam Branson, Peter Siebold, Roy Haggard, Tony Lang

Owens Valley, California from Space, Photo Mark Stucky

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