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With shiny new badges, Virgin Galactic pilots join elite group of commercial astronauts

Only four have received the designation

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Thunderous applause filled the atrium of the US Department of Transportation yesterday as Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao pinned golden badges to the spaceflight suits of Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow, symbolizing that each pilot had earned their Commercial Astronaut Wings.

The ceremony was held in the atrium of the US Department of Transportation, Washington, DC.

The ceremony, witnessed by teachers and school children from the Washington, DC area, was held to commemorate the historic flight the pair had flown late last year. In the early morning of December 13th, the two boarded the VSS Unity, a spaceplane owned by space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, and flew the vehicle to a height of 51.4 miles (82.7 kilometers) over the Mojave Desert in California, just crossing the boundary of space. While Sturckow had been to space before as an astronaut with NASA, it was the first spaceflight for Stucky, a former test pilot and commercial airline pilot.

“I was surprised by the clarity of the Earth,” Stucky told me later about the flight. “I expected to see great distances, but it just jumped out at me as if it was some ultra high-definition display.”

The actual time the two had spent in space was short — just a few minutes— but by crossing an altitude of 50 miles in a commercial vehicle, the two had qualified for the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial astronaut wings. Only two others have received this designation: Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, who both flew on a vehicle called SpaceShipOne in 2004. NASA and the US Air Force also give wings to their personnel who cross the same 50-mile mark, denoting this altitude as the place where Earth’s atmosphere peters out and space begins. Not everyone recognizes this as the boundary of space, though. The World Air Sports Federation, for instance, recognizes 62 miles (100 kilometers) as the boundary of space, though the organization is considering a change based on new research.

After receiving their wings, Stucky and Sturckow met with students and signed autographs.

But Virgin Galactic is based in the United States, and in their eyes, this was the first time the company had reached space in its 14-year history. It was also the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 that American astronauts had launched to space from American soil (though they didn’t reach orbit). “We’re all truly standing on the shoulders of giants,” Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, said during a speech.

Virgin Galactic hopes to do it again and again, eventually with passengers in tow. The company is focused on space tourism and has sold upwards of 600 tickets to customers hoping to ride into space with pilots like Stucky and Sturckow. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who spoke at the ceremony, expressed his desire for more people to follow in the pair’s footsteps. “Now I only hope there will be thousands more to come — that even you in this audience one day will be standing up here,” he said.

But the zero-g celebration also had some moments of gravity. McCarthy, Branson, and Chao all acknowledged in speeches before the badge ceremony that Virgin Galactic had a bumpy road to get to this point. More than four years ago, a Virgin Galactic spaceplane, the VSS Enterprise, broke apart during a powered flight test in pursuit of reaching space. One of the plane’s pilots, Michael Alsbury, died, and another pilot, Peter Siebold, was severely injured during the accident.

Branson invited a young boy in an astronaut suit to pose for pictures at the museum.
Branson invited a young boy in an astronaut suit to pose for pictures at the museum.

In fact, Stucky and Sturckow’s ceremony yesterday coincided with NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance during which the space agency honors all of the astronauts who have died in pursuit of space. The day is usually held during the last week of January or the first week of February to commemorate the Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo 1 tragedies, which all occurred within a week of each other. But because of the recent government shutdown, NASA had to postpone until yesterday.

It was weird timing, but most great spaceflight achievements often serve as moments of reflection. And those at Virgin Galactic said they were proud of how the team moved forward from the loss. “It was a very challenging time for the company,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, told me later. “But the team did a great job of coming together.”

After the ceremony, Stucky and Sturckow hung around to sign a few autographs and take pictures with students. They then quickly shuffled out to attend another event at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Virgin Galactic had decided to donate the hybrid rocket engine that carried Stucky and Sturckow to space to the Smithsonian.

“It’s a really great story that the public needs to know, and frankly one that’s inspiring,” Ellen Stofan, director of the National Air and Space Museum and former chief scientist at NASA, said in an interview. “And we need more kids involved in STEM. Being able to tell stories like Virgin Galactic’s, to me, inspires the next generation.”

A representative for the Guinness World Records (left) presented a new award to Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides (right).
A representative for the Guinness World Records (left) presented a new award to Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides (right).

The ceremonial accolades weren’t over yet. A representative for the Guinness World Records arrived at the museum dedication to let Virgin Galactic know that it was getting the award for the most powerful hybrid engine used on a crewed flight to space. For Stucky, the awards were nice, but he said he’s proud of what the flight ultimately represented. “For me, it’s about showing we have a great spaceship than about me personally getting to space for the first time,” he said in an interview. “I plan to get there many, many more times. So it was really satisfying to know that the vehicle was doing what it was designed to do.”

Now both he and Sturckow are eager to take people with them. “Once you’ve been in space yourself, one of the funnest things you can do is take somebody else up and share that with them,” Sturckow said. Stucky said he has flown people before on commercial airliners, but he noted they weren’t exactly excited to be there. “The majority of the people on those flights were there to get from point A to point B, they were not there because they really wanted to fly,” he said. “This will be different.”

Stucky presented Branson with a shirt that said “future astronaut.” Branson decided the best time to try it on was immediately.

Virgin isn’t quite ready for passenger flights yet. The company is gearing up for another test flight in the coming weeks out of the Mojave Desert. And the company will also need to start outfitting the inside of the spaceplane for customers, as well as simulate what the experience will be like for them. “We need to make sure we’re testing those procedures and that they all work properly,” said Whitesides. And then when the team is ready, they’ll shift to Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in New Mexico ahead of commercial operations. The timeline on all of this isn’t clear, though Branson noted that he hopes to fly on VSS Unity around the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landings, which is on July 20th.

Stucky and Sturckow won’t be on the next test flight, but Sturckow said that the next time he does fly, he’ll try to appreciate the mission, even in the short time they have. “This flight was really fast-paced and there were a lot of things happening,” he said. “I wanted to take in that detail and capture that moment, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to appreciate it. So I’m looking forward to flying again.”

Photography by Loren Grush / The Verge