He began flying for United Airlines, and sold mortgages for a few years, before going on active duty with the Air Force, in 2003. A year later, he deployed to Iraq. In an e-mail to friends and family, he recounted a harrowing, low-altitude helicopter ride across Baghdad: “I don’t care how much someone might have liked you, if you keep flying over their heads at 100 feet they are gonna eventually get annoyed.”
One night, he stayed up late to watch TV. He’d learned that Rutan was preparing to launch a manned, homemade rocket ship into space, and didn’t want to miss the event.
In 1996, an entrepreneur named Peter Diamandis announced that he would award ten million dollars to the first private citizen who sent a manned vehicle into space twice within two weeks. He called his contest the X Prize, and modelled it on a twenty-five-thousand-dollar award offered in 1919 to the first aviator to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. Four pilots died trying, and two others disappeared, before Charles Lindbergh, in May, 1927, crossed the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis.
Working behind a partition inside a Scaled Composites hangar in Mojave, Rutan and his team built a potbellied, high-winged, twenty-eight-foot-long plane, with three seats, simple controls, and a rocket in the rear. “If space is going to be cheap, it has to be stick-and-rudder,” Rutan said at the time. He called the vehicle SpaceShipOne. Inspired by nasa’s use of airborne platforms to launch the X-1 and the X-15, Rutan also developed a mother ship, which he named White Knight.
On June 21, 2004, tens of thousands of space-travel enthusiasts gathered in Mojave to witness the flight. Some visitors likened the experience to watching the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk.
A few minutes before 7 a.m., White Knight took off, with SpaceShipOne attached underneath. At forty-seven thousand feet, Mike Melvill, the SpaceShipOne pilot, commanded release; then a fiery plume shot out of the rear nozzle, as Melvill pulled back on the stick, aiming SpaceShipOne straight up. He was moving at Mach 3, and after he shut the motor down, as planned, the craft coasted past what is widely recognized as the boundary of space: sixty-two miles, or three hundred and thirty thousand feet, above sea level.
Stucky watched a broadcast of the launch from his office, in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Rutan’s success filled him with elation, envy, and hope. After his unsuccessful bids at becoming a nasa astronaut, he’d resigned himself to never reaching space. Now he wondered if there might be another way.
In the fall of 2004, SpaceShipOne completed two more spaceflights, earning Rutan the X Prize. President George W. Bush called to congratulate him. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and William Shatner, of “Star Trek,” both witnessed the winning flight. Also in attendance was Richard Branson, the flaxen-haired British entrepreneur. Branson was invested in Rutan’s success, both financially and emotionally. At the age of thirty, Branson had produced a documentary to commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing—a psychedelic montage of telescope images, ambient soundscapes, and John F. Kennedy’s “moon shot” speech. Eight years later, in 1988, Branson, who had recently launched a Virgin airline, appeared on the BBC program “Going Live!” A viewer called in and asked him if he’d contemplated extraterrestrial ventures. “I’d love to go into space,” Branson said. “If you’re building a spacecraft, I’d love to come with you.”
When Branson learned about SpaceShipOne, he made a deal with Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, who had been discreetly funding Rutan: Branson, they agreed, would pitch in a million dollars, and would secure the right to adapt Rutan’s design for space tourism. A week before Rutan won the X Prize, Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. His timing was opportune. nasa’s funding was being cut, and the Space Shuttle program was sputtering out. Branson promised a ride on a spaceship to anyone with a quarter of a million dollars to spare. (Leonardo DiCaprio was among the six hundred people who signed up.)
Branson had no experience building rockets, so he contracted Rutan to do the work. The program ran into difficulties, some of them caused by Branson’s efforts to attract publicity. He’d announced that spaceflights could start as early as 2007, a wildly unrealistic projection, considering that Rutan and his team still had to design, build, test, and license two new vehicles, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. Although these were being modelled on SpaceShipOne and White Knight, they had to be much bigger. SpaceShipOne could accommodate three people on board, and had a rocket that generated about twenty thousand pounds of thrust; for SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry two pilots and six passengers, the engineers calculated that they needed at least seventy thousand pounds of thrust. Propulsion is difficult to scale, and designing a viable rocket motor was giving Rutan’s team fits.
On July 26, 2007, a team of Scaled Composites engineers and technicians gathered at a site north of the Mojave airport to test their new hybrid-fuel rocket motor. A 1991 article in Aerospace America had praised hybrid-fuel rockets as “safer, more reliable, [and] more cost-effective” than rival designs. But they were not risk-free.
The engineers of the new rocket wanted to check the flow rates of nitrous oxide. At 2:30 p.m., the tank holding the nitrous oxide became overpressurized and exploded. Shrapnel sprayed in every direction. Three people died, and three others were severely injured. In a blog post, New Scientist said that the accident “raised serious questions about safety practices at Scaled.” Jim Tighe, the company’s lead aerodynamicist, told me, “It was a real blow to our confidence.” Rutan took a medical leave, citing heart difficulties.
Stucky hang gliding in his home town of Salina, Kansas, in 1974. Photograph courtesy Paul Stucky via Mark Stucky
At the time, Mark Stucky was living in Las Vegas. After four deployments to Iraq, he’d received the Air Force’s Bobby Bond Memorial Aviator Award, which cited his “incredible resourcefulness and real courage” in training the Iraqi Air Force. In 2007, he moved to Nevada to work on a highly classified program; he wrote his own obituary, in case he was in a fatal accident. His schedule was erratic, and the secrecy strained his family life. His son, Dillon, who is now twenty-nine, told me, “He would be gone for a week, and couldn’t talk about where he’d been or what he was doing.”
Stucky had bought a paraglider that he could stuff in a backpack, and he leaped off cliffsides and soared over the desert. In a 2006 book that he co-authored, “Paragliding: A Pilot’s Training Manual,” he wrote that he loved the “elegant simplicity of the sport.” His wife, Joan, accused him of having a “sickness” for flight. Stucky believed that she intended this to sound diagnostic. Several of his family members had suffered from mental illness. Stucky recalled his father, in old age, saying, “Tell your friends in the C.I.A. that those window washers aren’t fooling anybody.” His mother, Lidia, became schizophrenic. While he was working for United, she once called in a bomb threat at LAX. But Stucky had passed one psychological examination after another in the Air Force. He told Joan that she was trying to shame him about his passion.
In late 2007, he asked the president of Burt Rutan’s company, an engineer and a test pilot named Doug Shane, about opportunities at Scaled Composites. The next March, Shane invited him to Mojave for a tour of the hangar and to fly the SpaceShipTwo simulator. Stucky performed well, and afterward he wrote to Shane, “You asked me about what I have to offer aside from flying. I have a reputation for getting things done successfully and one of my strong points is an ability to ferret out the real safety issues from the imagined.” Scaled Composites, he noted, had an “unequaled ability at figuring out what the real design and flight test issues are and then successfully addressing them,” adding, “I would meld well with your existing philosophy.”
A month later, Stucky and another member of the Desert Skywalkers, the local paragliding club, met near a ridge overlooking a dry lake bed south of Las Vegas. Before jumping, Stucky had noticed a few dust devils in the distance. “I knew there was some potentially evil air out there,” he said. Not long into the flight, a funnel cloud blew out his canopy. Stucky was three hundred feet above the ground, spinning out of control. As he fell, he tried to reopen the canopy. “I was purposely not looking at the ground, because I thought it would just slow me down,” he told me. “It’s kind of like having a revolver and having somebody rushing you and you’ve got to load the revolver with one bullet. If you sit there and look at him and try to hurry, you’re probably not going to do as good of a job as if you’re just methodically looking at the bullet, putting it into the revolver, aiming, and then pulling the trigger.” Sixty feet above the ground, he pumped the canopy back open, but it was too late to arrest his fall and he slammed into the ground. The impact collapsed both his lungs, shattered a vertebra, and compressed three others. He crawled to the nearest road and flagged a motorist, who called for help.
Stucky spent the next three months in an upper-body brace, recuperating in the guest bedroom of his house. The injury further stressed his marriage. Joan insisted that he stop paragliding. “My wife had no appreciation for my love for flight,” Stucky later wrote, in the magazine Hang Gliding & Paragliding. He filed for divorce. (Joan told me that Stucky’s characterization of her was “absolutely false,” adding, “I supported him in everything he did for twenty-nine years.”)
Stucky took off for California and moved in with a woman, Cheryl Agin. She had worked in the public-affairs department at Dryden, where, she recalled to me, “the pilots were the rock stars, and he was definitely the best-looking of them all.” She went on, “He would do the coolest flybys”—low-altitude, high-speed passes—“and he would get in trouble for them, but of course we all loved it.” When Agin became involved with Stucky, she knew what she was getting into: her father had been a civilian engineer on the X-15 project. Stucky told me, “She understood that flying is a part of my core.”
After his three children learned about Agin, they blocked his calls and ignored his e-mails. He wrote a song for his elder daughter, Sascha, and paid a professional guitarist to perform it; he sent her a recording, but didn’t hear back. Dillon, who had gone to the Air Force Academy to become a pilot, transferred to U.C.L.A. He competed in track and field, and on his U.C.L.A. profile page he listed, under “personal,” only his mom and two sisters. Stucky and Agin sometimes travelled to Dillon’s track meets, but, wary of being rejected, they lurked in the bleachers.
In April, 2009, Stucky accepted a test-pilot position with Scaled Composites. His portfolio included the SpaceShipTwo program. It should have been everything he wanted. But his estrangement from his children tempered his excitement. The military had trained him to compartmentalize distractions, but, commuting forty minutes every day on an empty desert highway, he had plenty of time to contemplate how badly he missed his kids.
That August, he wrote to Dillon, “The only way I can see that I would be so shutout is that you have been convinced that I have wronged your mother and/or am a scumbag. Neither is the case. . . . My previous job required me to sometimes be less than candid about what I did and where I was. That is over. If you will allow it, I would be happy to answer any personal (not prior job-related) questions with 100% truth and then let you be the judge and jury of my fate as a father.” He received no reply.
The engineers at Scaled Composites worked out a detailed flight-test program for SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo. To prove the vehicles’ airworthiness to their client, Virgin Galactic, they needed to successfully complete a couple of “captive carry” flights (SpaceShipTwo remaining mated to WhiteKnightTwo), a dozen or so “glide” flights (SpaceShipTwo, upon release from WhiteKnightTwo, gliding down for a landing), and several “powered” flights (SpaceShipTwo, upon release from WhiteKnightTwo, igniting its rocket).
Stucky and another Scaled Composites test pilot, Peter Siebold, took turns in the pilot’s seat. Siebold, who was a decade younger than Stucky, was a prodigious engineer who’d been hired by Scaled Composites before he’d even graduated from college. Stucky found him intimidatingly smart; in a 2009 e-mail, he wrote, “I can point out how to make things better, but, unlike Pete, I can’t sit down and write the code to implement them.” But, the more Stucky got to know Siebold, the more he found him to be worrisomely cocky. For aviators, confidence is an asset but arrogance is a liability. As Chuck Yeager, who started his flying career as an ace in the Second World War, wrote in his memoir, “Arrogance got more pilots in trouble than faulty equipment.”
On October 10, 2010, Siebold flew the first successful glide flight. Rutan sent out a celebratory e-mail, spurring his employees to “reach our goal” of engineering “a spaceship capable to provide the space experience to thousands of adventurers.” They were hoping to install a rocket motor soon, but their propulsion problems had yet to be solved, so Stucky and Siebold continued doing glide flights.
Stucky flew the sixteenth glide flight on September 29, 2011. The word “glide” makes these flights sound deceptively tame. Some of them were extremely challenging, part of the battle testing that SpaceShipTwo had to endure before initiating commercial service. The sixteenth glide flight was designed to assess the craft’s propensity for “flutter”—oscillations across the wings and the tail which could lead, in extreme cases, to the vehicle’s breaking apart. The engineers wanted Stucky to enter a sharp dive, targeting a maximum speed just below Mach 1. Upon release, Stucky held the stick all the way forward, as planned. But the engineers hadn’t fully accounted for such a steep angle of attack, and the tail lost lift; the spaceship suddenly flipped upside down and began spinning to the left.
Stucky counted each rotation as the plunging craft spun past the sun: One, two . . .
In other vehicles, he had often practiced entering, and recovering from, inverted spins like this. These were unpleasant and dangerous maneuvers. In 1953, Yeager was flying an X-1 when he inadvertently entered an inverted spin at eighty thousand feet. As he later told NPR, for nearly a minute he was “fighting to try to recover the airplane and stay conscious from the high rotational rates.” At twenty-five thousand feet, he regained control. Thirty-two years later, the stunt pilot who filmed Yeager’s scenes in “The Right Stuff” was doing stunts for “Top Gun” when he entered an inverted spin; he crashed and died.