Test Gods, Nicholas Schmidle. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2021.
Summary: An account of Virgin Galactic’s effort to become a space tourism company focusing on the intersection of Richard Branson’s vision and the work of test pilots and engineers to make it work.
On July 11, 2021, Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism company achieved its first fully crewed flight with Branson aboard. This was the culmination of a seventeen-year program that began when Branson joined forces with Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites to design an air-launched space ship that would land like a plane. Test Gods traces this history through 2019, centered on one of the key test pilots throughout the program, Mark Stucky.
The author, Nicholas Schmidle, the son of an ace fighter pilot, was embedded with the company for four years, from 2014 to 2018 and became close to Stucky. He traces the design and testing of what was initially called Spaceship Two and the launch vehicle White Knight Two. Space vehicle development has been dotted with disasters and the Virgin Galactic program was no exception. He describes the tragedy of the fuel tank explosion during rocket development in 2007 in which three engineers died.
Then the testing program begins, first, captive flights, attached to White Knight Two, then glide flights and finally longer and longer rocket flights. Each pushes an unknown envelope that often comes with new control problems. Stucky does many of these, and the line between temporary losses of control or anomalies and disaster was a thin one. Each time leads to modifications that improve the vehicle.
Then came the setback that delayed the program several years and led to the separation of Virgin Galactic from Scaled Composites. On a flight Stucky did not fly in 2014, fellow test pilot Mike Alsbury had his first experience of going transonic in the vehicle, and in the exhilaration made the fatal error of deploying the “feather,” a kind of air brake that should not have been deployed during the transonic phase. Stucky saw it unfold in the control room, realized the fatal error that Alsbury was making, and witnessed the subsequent breakup of the vehicle. Alsbury died; his co-pilot Pete Siebold survived.
It wasn’t until 2016 that Virgin Galactic would fly. This gave time to address safety issues and pilot training arising from the crash. Stucky was a key, in setting a tone of rigor in flight training. Finally, on December 13, 2018, Stucky and co-pilot C.J. Sturckow reached Mach 3.0 and an altitude of 51.4 miles, and received their astronaut wings.
Schmidle explores what made Stucky so successful–the combination of risk and preparation. It turns out his most serious injuries were a couple paragliding episodes. His work destroyed his marriage and Schmidle explores his eventual reconciliation with his children, including son Dillon, present at that December 2018 flight. It also causes the author to reflect on his relationship with his own father, whose footsteps he didn’t follow.
One of the most fascinating interactions was that between test pilots and engineers. For the engineers, it was often the case that they always wanted to make things safer, especially after the crash, whereas the test pilots wanted to know if it was safe enough–they understood there was always risk, both known and unknown.
The material on Branson is interesting. On the one hand are his “vapor” promises of being able to do commercial flights as early as 2011, mostly to attract investors and customers. Yet he never compromised safety. And later on when Mohammed bin Salman offered him $1 billion, he left the money on the table. He would not take the money of the man who ordered the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Branson was the one who did all the interviews after the July flight. What this book fills out is the story of all those who contributed to that success, especially the test pilots (and their wives or partners who lived with the fear of every flight), and the engineers who built the rocket motors and space craft. This is a great inside look at one private space company, and what a challenging goal they have already achieved, albeit at great cost.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.