When I first met Mark Stucky, he suggested we chat at the bar at the Broken Bit, a saloon-themed steakhouse near his home. I had come to Mojave, California, in late 2014, hoping to write about Richard Branson’s dream of making his space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, a reality. More specifically, I wanted to write about the mysterious pilots testing a billionaire’s supersonic, handmade rocket ship out in the high desert of California. It felt retro and zany and endlessly fascinating.
Stucky, who would soon become the lead test pilot for the program, was waiting at a high-top table when I arrived. He kept an eye on the door, because he wasn’t supposed to be speaking with any reporters. He was curious what I had in mind.
Truthfully, it wasn’t much. I didn’t know the first thing about rockets or flight dynamics or the commercial space industry. Nor did I know much about Stucky. Just that he was a former Marine who flew the first three powered flights, and he was offering to meet me for a drink. That told me enough, like either he didn’t care, or he trusted himself more than he trusted some suit in the PR department to tell him what he should and shouldn’t say.
He ordered a shot of whiskey, neat. He clenched his jaw when he spoke and hunched his shoulders, like something was weighing on them, a heavy knapsack or a shell or a lifetime of stories of which he was eager to unburden himself.
Stucky had come to Mojave chasing his own dream. He’d spent almost 40 years trying to become an astronaut. He’d done stints in the Marines, the Air Force, and NASA. Now, Branson’s pioneering gamble on space tourism—sending passengers into space aboard this handmade craft they called SpaceShipTwo—represented Stucky’s last best chance at finally getting himself to space. But nothing about it was easy. He had been in the control room a few weeks earlier when Virgin’s spacecraft broke up in midair. One of the two pilots, Stucky’s best friend, was killed; the other was lucky to be alive.
I asked questions about the crash, but he was cagey on the details. He could get in real trouble for commenting on the crash before the authorities completed their investigation, he said, even though he already knew what happened. He stared hard at me, but looked like a man with secrets in search of someone to share them with. Stucky 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—the general in charge of all the airplanes and helicopters in the Marine Corps. Stucky remembered being a young lieutenant when this other pilot was a captain, the best in the squadron, a hotshot who wore aviators and dangled a loopy-ashed cigarette from his lips that stained his mustache. This was the kind of gifted pilot and officer Stucky had wanted to become, full of confidence and conviction, one who “never met a rule he didn’t mind breaking.”
Stucky had a good reason for noting the resemblance. That man was my father.
My dad signed up to join the Marines a few months after the fall of Saigon. He was a history major with long hair who drove sports cars and listened to rock and roll. But he felt like he had missed his chance. He played college rugby and was a fierce competitor; he couldn’t imagine a greater competition than dogfighting against an enemy airplane.
My dad graduated from Officer Candidate School, the Basic School, flight school, and the preeminent fighter-pilot school, Top Gun. He earned his call sign when he was launching off the deck of an aircraft carrier and his engine “rolled back”—suddenly losing thrust. He was about to sink into the ocean when his engine resumed full power, sending a glorious rooster tail over the back of the aircraft. He was henceforth known as “Rooster.”
In 1982, he got orders to be an instructor at the training squadron in Yuma, Arizona, where freshly minted pilots went to learn the ways of aerial combat. My dad didn’t fly against the students much, because it wouldn’t have been fair. Even when he flew against the other instructors, it didn’t seem fair. Doug Jones, a radio intercept officer in the squadron, said, “Rooster could do things with the Phantom that shouldn’t have been possible, based on the aerodynamics. He could make that thing dance.”
Jones flew with a lot of pilots. The F-4 had two seats; the RIO sat in the back. But hardly anyone flew like my dad. Others got twitchy flying low; it was unforgiving down there—the margin for error was tiny. If you glanced at the instruments a second too long, you could hit the ground. Another fireball lighting up the predawn sky. Another name across the top of another accident report. But if you were good, it gave you an edge, suggesting that maybe you had it, that you could fly at the corners of the envelope and live to tell others about it. One morning, my dad took off with Jones in the back seat. He stayed treetop low over the main road that ran onto the base. It was early and no one was on the road, or so they thought. My dad engaged the afterburners. Neither he nor Jones saw the motorcyclist, or knew that the man on the motorcycle was the base operations officer. The exhaust wash nearly knocked the ops officer off his bike. He was livid, and when my dad landed, he and Jones got called into the squadron commander’s office, where they were chewed out and threatened with having their wings yanked.
That was one of those stories that got funnier with time and alcohol, or when Jones retold it to the wide-eyed students back in the ready room. The students would listen and take notes and wonder if they had the guts to apply the afterburners at that altitude. Some of them were good; a few were great, though many of them faded out after a few years. One fresh-faced lieutenant was convinced that he had it, that big things awaited him. His name was Mark Stucky.
Students rotated through the squadron every few months, so Stucky wasn’t there long. But my father made an impression because he flew hard—“straight lines and square corners and max g’s,” as another former student recalled—and didn’t care what others thought. He knew what he wanted. Some found his conviction intimidating. My father wasn’t one to ask for permission.
The pitch I had made to Virgin Galactic was that I wanted to embed with the company as it built another spaceship and returned, after the 2014 crash, to rocket-powered flights. Like Buzz Bissinger had done with the high school football team for Friday Night Lights, I said. I knew this was a big ask. A football coach had fragile egos to protect; Virgin had to worry about corporate secrets and all the risks that came with allowing an outsider access to inside information. Frankly, letting a reporter embed with a high-performance flight test program was unheard-of. “Keep that man away,” Neil Armstrong once said about a journalist. “He’s a ghoul.”
As I burrowed in, I was surprised by what the experience stirred in me. When I first met Stucky, he felt instantly familiar, like I knew him from another life, though maybe I just knew his type. He would call me on his commute to work, and we would talk for an hour until I heard him turn off the engine. I knew he was sitting in the parking lot, waiting to go inside, often explaining something he didn’t have to explain, like why he refused to give up his paraglider even after he broke his back and his wife, Joan, threatened to leave him.
Stucky didn’t have to explain, because after my dad crashed his motorcycle for the umpteenth time, he swore to my mom that he would quit and hang up his leathers, but then his bones healed and his ego recovered and he was out there again, twisting the throttle as he came out of a turn. He did so not as an act of defiance against my mom, but just because that’s who he was. Mediocrity bored him.
When I was young, I dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. I had a flight suit that a tailor in Seoul had made specially for my dad. It was green, just like his, but with my name embroidered in yellow across the breast, and I would step into the legs and drag that long zipper up the front and feel like I was putting on another skin.
And always, airplanes everywhere—jets roaring overhead, and balsa wood models in the garage, and remote-control planes that we would open on Christmas morning and inevitably crash into a tree before lunch. My brother and my dad and I took hang-gliding lessons on the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk. You can get your pilot’s license when you turn 16, my dad said. He knew people with antique biplanes and gliders and a single-prop Piper Cub who took me flying and offered to get me qualified.
My dad had views on adolescence, on fear, on character, on how boys became men, on rites of passage. Years later he told me, “I was trying to create some kind of climate in which you could grow.” We hunted wild boars in the Lowcountry, our faces smeared with camo paint, paddling through the creeks and then dropping anchor in the mud to get out and stalk boars with tusks curved like fishing hooks, our boots tied extra tight so when we sunk into the mud, we didn’t lose a shoe. When I was 13, I shot and killed my first boar, boiling its head in a pasta pot so I could remove the teeth and make a necklace with the curvy tusks.
When I was 16, we moved to Virginia. I was moody and into books about solitary adventurers. One day my parents drove me to the Blue Ridge Mountains and left me on the side of the road, near the Appalachian Trail. I went off and hiked alone, me and my moods and the imaginary sound of black bears invading my camp in the middle of the night. I met my parents the next day, 20 miles up the trail; I knew my dad was proud.
More rites, more passages.
After I graduated from high school, my parents sent me to Wyoming for a week. They hired a rock-climbing guide to lead me up crags and cracks on daunting routes in the Wind River Range. It had to be a private guide, because my dad believed that you diluted an experience when you did it with a group; my earlier bid to join the Boy Scouts never stood a chance.
I think my dad assumed that I would arrive where he did, that I would see flight as the ultimate transcendent experience, this opportunity to shed what Charles Lindbergh described as “all conscious connection with the past,” to live “only in the moment… crowded with beauty, pierced with danger.” But I lost interest as I grew up. I no longer dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot. I can’t explain why. Maybe I knew how much my dad valued commitment, how he didn’t believe in accidental excellence, and perhaps I was scared—not of crashing and dying, but that I might not make it as far as he did, that I would wash out of boot camp or flight school, or end up flying cargo planes or helicopters or anything other than fighter jets, because I grew up hearing him talk about the difference between fighter pilots and everybody else, and I didn’t want to be everybody else.
It took more than a decade for me to realize that I never really wanted to become a pilot so much as I wanted to become like my dad, to achieve what others deemed impossible. Time alone did not prompt this revelation; having sons of my own did.
He had performed feats that I could not imagine performing. I wanted to know how he felt and what he was thinking at the time. But my dad was protective of his inner life. He talked, but seldom shared; he set out to shape me and my brother, who went into the Marines and became a special operations officer, by modeling what he considered desirable behaviors rather than relating with undesirable ones. He never sat me down when I was a teenager to say that he knew what I was going through. “That’s not a conversation anybody ever had with me,” he explained.
Perhaps this was what attracted me to Stucky: his openness about his own flaws and fallibilities. Or maybe it was because Stucky was a stranger. I could ask him about his feelings in a way that I could never do with my dad. 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.
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 for 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. But he was still alive, and it seemed impossibly difficult to write about someone so close. Legacies were fluid, funny things. I didn’t see how to do it, how to hit pause on life in order to study a few key frames, to freeze a relationship long enough to make sense of it. Like Kierkegaard said, you could only understand life by looking backward, but had to live it looking forward. Then I started working on this story.
I was effectively embedded with Virgin Galactic for almost four years, an arrangement that dated back to late 2014, when, shortly after the crash, I proposed writing a story about the company for The New Yorker. Virgin Galactic placed few restrictions on me. I shadowed engineers and aviators and accompanied the pilots on training flights. I was around so much that a new hire once confused me for an employee.
Of course, it was Stucky whom I came to know best, as I pieced together his long pursuit of a dream to reach space. We are often asked as authors how we find our stories, how we know that a subject will hold our interest over the years required to research, report, and write about it. Truthfully? We don’t. We are, in that sense, little different from test pilots or gamblers, taking risks on an uncertain future. We gather whatever information we can and hope that it leads us to an interesting end.
I had no idea when I began this project that Stucky knew my father. Or how much they would remind me of each other, how writing about Stucky would become an opportunity for me to write about my dad without writing about my dad, because I knew that my father would never let me get close enough to write about him in a way that felt revealing, perhaps even discomfiting. That was an awkward reality to confront, how it was that I could ask Stucky questions that I had never asked, and might never ask, my dad.
That was when I knew that I could spend years writing this book. But we, the authors, are not the only ones doing the choosing. Sometimes subjects choose their authors. At one point, Stucky asked me why I thought he had done what he had done—cooperating with me, letting me into his home and into his life, exposing himself to a reporter.
I said that vanity probably played a role, and he wasn’t too vain to admit that. But there was more to it, and I suggested that he knew he had lived a remarkable life and had been waiting to find someone in whom he trusted to tell it, and that when I walked into his life, he knew I was that person. He agreed.
A few days later, I was watching as Stucky set off on the most important flight of his life. By late 2018, Branson felt he was on the cusp of achieving something very big. And when he arrived in Mojave in December for the project’s most critical test flight, he could barely contain himself. “I’m not allowed to say it,” he told the crowd that had assembled, “but hopefully we’re going to space today!”
At 11 minutes past seven in the morning, a craft called WhiteKnightTwo accelerated down the runway and lifted off. Virgin had pioneered a unique air-launch system—a mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, had been designed to carry SpaceShipTwo so the rocket ship would not waste its energy slogging through the dense lower atmosphere.
Stucky, sitting below in SpaceShipTwo, consulted his checklist as he and his copilot, Rick Sturckow, made their ascent. They reached the drop point, 43,000 feet above the desert. The WhiteKnightTwo pilot pushed the release button. Thump. SpaceShipTwo dropped away.
“Fire!” said Stucky. Sturckow pulled the rocket motor switch. Clean light. They were off. Stucky held the nose flat, according to plan, but once they broke the sound barrier, he began trimming the horizontal stabilizers. Now the spaceship was vertical, shooting for the stars.
They sliced through the thinning air, the rocket burning about 200 pounds of nitrous oxide and rubber a second, becoming lighter and faster. “She felt like a thoroughbred,” Stucky said. They were in unknown, uncharted aerodynamic territory, but Stucky never felt more sure of anything in his life.
“Two-point-eight Mach,” said Sturckow.
“Copy,” said Stucky, a lilt suddenly detectable in his voice.
They were a minute into the flight. As Sturckow shut down the motor, Stucky checked the altimeter—135,000 feet—and glanced at a reading on the console that showed their estimated final altitude: 275,000 feet. Good attitude. Minimal roll rates.
Stucky got on the radio. “Great motor burn, everybody,” he said. “We’re going to space, Richard!”
Branson was squinting against the sun, tracking SpaceShipTwo’s contrails across the blue morning sky. Covering his face with both hands, Branson cratered with emotion. His son, Sam, standing next to him, placed a hand on his father’s back for support. The outline of a single tear streaked the side of Branson’s face.
Stucky was 51 miles above the Earth, laughing. He didn’t know what else to do. He had been transported to some otherworldly fun house, as sunlight filled the cockpit, lighting him and Sturckow up like stage actors.
Lifting his visor, Stucky looked out the window at the pitch black of space and the majestic blue of the Earth, and he could hardly believe his eyes. He grasped for an emotion but could only laugh, incredulously. “Ha, ha. Look outside, man,” he said.
Later, on the ground, as I stood near Stucky as he celebrated, I tried to clarify my role. Was I standing there as a reporter? Or as a friend? We all live by some code or another. But we, as reporters, could be especially sanctimonious about ours—burying our biases under the soapboxes we stand upon, preaching the virtues of objectivity.
But this story, more than any other, forced me to reckon with that code, to consider what it meant when a source was also a subject and later became a friend; what it meant when a source provided not just information but inspiration; what it meant when a source influenced your life in the process of you writing about theirs; what it meant to simultaneously maintain professional objectivity and personal awe; and what it meant when one of those outlier cases, the ones infused with awe, was also your father.
I had invested more than four years of my life into Stucky and his. And though the blinking light of my recorder provided some constant reminder of our unspoken roles—he talked, I recorded—the line between personal and professional dissolved over time. I felt his pains and triumphs.
I wondered whether it would be awkward to hug Stucky or more awkward not to. How did we characterize our relationship? Friends and family hugged. Writers and subjects shook hands. I extended my hand, but the gesture felt sterile.
I reached around with my other arm for a hug.
Nicholas Schmidle writes for The New Yorker and is the author of Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, from which this article was adapted.