About 20 years ago, Dennis Tito, an investment manager and a businessman from Los Angeles, US, paid $20 million (around ₹145 crore now) to hitch a ride to space. He was supposed to visit the Mir space station—but Mir was deorbited in March 2001. A month later, Tito visited the International Space Station.
He became the first so-called space tourist; others followed soon. Mark Shuttleworth, the British-South African tech entrepreneur (2002), American entrepreneur and scientist Gregory Olsen (2005), and Iranian-American engineer Anousheh Ansari (2006) are just some who have visited the International Space Station over the years on self-funded trips, paying anywhere from $20-35 million. Between 2001-09, seven individuals flew to space through the US space tourism company Space Adventures and the Russian space agency Roscosmos.
Orbital space tourism has picked up pace and today, at least three major private companies are working to build rockets that will carry people into space on short flights. In his new book, Test Gods: Virgin Galactic And The Making Of A Modern Astronaut, The New Yorker journalist Nicholas Schmidle profiles the remarkable story of the engineers, test pilots and visionaries behind one such campaign to build a space tourism company—Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Through the 352-page book, Schmidle primarily follows Mark Stucky, Virgin’s lead test pilot. He also sheds light on Branson, the eccentric English billionaire funding this private space-flight venture.
Branson, however, is not the only name in the space tourism race today. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos announced earlier this month that he would fly to space on 20 July with his brother Mark on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, the rocket ship designed by his aerospace company Blue Origin. An unnamed bidder even paid $28 million at a recent auction for a seat on the same flight. Some news reports suggested Branson could be looking to steal a march on Bezos by flying in Virgin’s VSS Unity SpaceShipTwo in early July. Whether that materialises or not, Virgin Galactic is certainly taking big strides. On 22 May, test pilots flew the VSS Unity to a height of 89km above Earth, completing a key test flight that takes it one step closer to commercial operations.
As Schmidle points out in the book, Branson, Bezos and SpaceX founder Elon Musk have “distinct visions” for their journeys to space. While Virgin Galactic hopes to carry passengers on a “sub-orbital flight”, Blue Origin is interested in deep space exploration too. The most ambitious is Musk, who hopes to colonise Mars one day.
With Mark Stucky, however, the author takes the reader on a deeply personal journey, right from his early days as a boy who was born to fly. Inspired by the pioneering aviator John Glenn, and his missions to space in 1962, a three-year-old Stucky told his father he would one day become an astronaut. His first experiences of hang gliding, skydiving with goggles stolen from a chemistry lab and a dodgy parachute, life in the Marine Corps, becoming a pilot with US space agency Nasa and flying the world’s fastest spy jet, serving with the air force during the war in Iraq—Schmidle puts you on the shoulder of a successful pilot and his passion for flying. The author is no stranger to this feeling. His father, Robert, was a decorated fighter pilot.
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The triumphs and journey of taking people to space are also dotted with tragic moments. In 2014, Stucky saw one of his closest friends and co-pilots, Michael Alsbury, die in a crash of the Virgin SpaceShipTwo space vehicle VSS Enterprise. Schmidle poignantly describes the small margins of error and the risks that come with the job.
It was a simple technical mistake by Alsbury, an experienced test pilot, that led to the crash as aerodynamic forces tore the ship apart. The tragedy hit Stucky hard but didn’t deter him. “An expectation of sudden death came with the job; test pilots learned to metabolize mortality differently than the rest of us,” Schmidle writes.
There is, of course, the elation of flying to space, experiencing weightlessness and returning safely to Earth. In December 2018, Stucky and his co-pilot Frederick Sturckow, also a former Nasa astronaut, took the SpaceShipTwo more than 51 miles (roughly around 82.7km) above Earth, a mark used by the US to denote the beginning of space. This was a major boost for Virgin Galactic—and the industry is expecting much more, in the form of commercial operations for instance, by the end of the year.
For those who can afford it and the ones with the “right risk appetite”, nothing else comes close to space travel, says Schmidle. “A Himalayan expedition seemed almost pedestrian by comparison.”
This brings up another question, recently posed by the Associated Press: As private space flight picks up speed, who should be called an astronaut? What do we call the people who are reportedly willing to pay up to $55 million for a seat on a space rocket? Amateur astronauts or space tourists? Space sightseers or rocket riders? Schmidle’s book leads you to some answers. But more importantly, it takes you on a well-reported journey on what inspires people to chase their dreams.