Books

A ‘Right Stuff’ for Our Moment of Space Travel

TEST GODS
Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut
By Nicholas Schmidle

Five days after the death of George Floyd and at the height of the pandemic, a new era of spaceflight began when two NASA astronauts departed Cape Canaveral on board the Falcon 9, a rocket built by SpaceX. This was the first time that private funding would launch NASA astronauts into space and, for anyone watching, the schism between America’s stellar achievement and terrestrial dysfunction was jarring. I recall toggling between news channels, which alternated coverage of flames pouring from the Falcon 9 booster and those engulfing whole city blocks. Nicholas Schmidle’s remarkable account of the commercial space program, “Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut,” is a book that adeptly jumps between our celestial aspirations and our human, earthbound limitations.

“What really moved Branson was the transformative power of it all,” Schmidle writes about the infinitely excitable Virgin Group founder, Richard Branson. “He regarded space travel as a humanistic, rather than escapist, venture.” What follows in the initial chapters is a cast of dreamers familiar from such stories: billionaire funders such as Branson and the late Microsoft founder Paul Allen; exacting engineers such as the NASA veterans Burt Rutan and Mike Moses; and, of course, test pilots, including Mike Alsbury, who is lost in a fatal crash, and Virgin’s lead test pilot, Mark Stucky, a former Marine aviator.

The first third of the book provides a riveting account of the underreported commercial space race, which has up until now lacked a worthy storyteller, though it is replete with the near misses, catastrophes and jockeying between pilots familiar to readers of Norman Mailer’s “Of a Fire on the Moon” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.” In these early pages Schmidle takes us through these paces. Then his story heads in another direction, becoming personal in a way those of his iconic predecessors never did.

When Stucky and Schmidle first meet at a bar, he is on assignment for The New Yorker in the days after Mike Alsbury’s death. “He ordered a shot of whiskey, neat,” Schmidle writes of Stucky. “He stared hard at me but looked like a man with secrets in search of someone to share them with. He said I reminded him of a fighter pilot he knew 30 years ago but hadn’t seen until recently, when Stucky saw the pilot on TV wearing a uniform with three stars on each shoulder. … Stucky had a good reason for noting the resemblance. That man was my father.”

At this point, the book stops being solely about space exploration and is richer for it; the account of Virgin Galactic’s efforts proceeds but does so in tandem with Stucky’s and Schmidle’s stories, each man grappling with that uniquely fraught experience: fatherhood. Stucky, recently divorced, is for a time estranged from his children. Between test flights, in which he’s breaking the sound barrier and skimming the atmosphere, he is driving hours to his son’s college track meets to watch in the stands, unacknowledged, wondering if his children will ever speak to him again.

While Schmidle maintains a close relationship with his father, Lt. Gen. Robert “Rooster” Schmidle, he is trying to understand his own life’s trajectory alongside that of the older man. “I knew there would come a time when I would be ready to write about my dad, about growing up in the shadow of this extraordinary man who flew fighter jets, and raced motorcycles, and hunted wild boars with a longbow and home-fletched arrows, and earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, and wrote his thesis on Wittgenstein, and lectured at the Sorbonne, and retired as a three-star general, which he took hard because he wanted four.”

The sections of the book that narrate how Virgin Galactic gets to space are replete with white-knuckled descriptions of booster rockets, pilots braving the “transonic zone,” everything you’d hope to read were Mailer or Wolfe alive today to tell the tale; but where this book truly shines, where it feels singular, is not in the how but in the why. Schmidle writes that he grew up hearing from his father about the difference between fighter pilots and everybody else. “Through Stucky, it seemed, I could rummage vicariously into my father’s inner life, to try to learn something about him, to try to figure out what it was that made him do what he did.”

Why are we trying to get to space?

In one of his last public lectures at the Oxford Union, Stephen Hawking said: “We must also continue to go into space for the future of humanity. I don’t think we will survive another thousand years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.” For Hawking, space exploration wasn’t only about the glamour of having “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” a verse often quoted by astronauts. (Before Hawking’s death, Richard Branson had very publicly promised him a flight with Virgin Galactic.) It was more profound than doing somersaults in zero gravity; it was about the preservation of the species. The same as fatherhood.

We go to space because of what’s on earth — our communities, our families, our children and the perpetuation of humanity. This, it seems, is one of the conclusions Schmidle reaches in his deeply reported and deeply personal book. It is a masterly work, a reminder of what should inspire us all.

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