By Kristin Fisher and Jackie Wattles, CNN
Mark “Forger” Stucky, who for six years headed the test pilot program at space company Virgin Galactic before he says he was fired earlier this year, is taking a job with the company’s chief competitor, Blue Origin.
Stucky said he will join Blue Origin’s “Advanced Development Programs” team, where he said in a statement to CNN that he will “do my best to contribute to [CEO Jeff Bezos’] amazing vision of humans not just having a continuous presence in space but truly becoming a space-faring species.”
Blue Origin confirmed Stucky’s hiring in an email.
Stucky piloted the first flight aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo that reached the edge of space in 2018. That flight was widely considered to be the first crewed mission to space to launch from US soil since NASA’s Space Shuttle Program retired in 2011, and it earned him a pair of commercial astronaut wings.
He was also a key figure in “Test Gods,” a recent book by New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle, which mapped out previously undisclosed issues with a 2019 flight of SpaceShipTwo. In the book, Stucky also speaks candidly about the risks involved with the spacecraft, including a vivid account of a 2011 test flight Stucky piloted during which SpaceShipTwo, which requires two pilots to operate, began spinning out of control. Stucky’s co-pilot “was sure they were going to die” before Stucky was able to regain control of the plane by deploying a special braking system, called the “feather,” according to the book.
Stucky announced he was leaving Virgin Galactic shortly after Branson’s flight to space in July in a brief LinkedIn post, saying “If life throws you lemons then maybe it’s time to learn to juggle.” He added that his departure was not on his own timeline.
“I’ll leave it to Virgin Galactic to explain the reason for my termination as they never explained it to me,” he said in a statement to CNN. “It’s only logical to assume it was due to the book ‘Test Gods’ as the work environment completely changed after its publication. The same supervisor that told me I was indispensable, undervalued, and underpaid in April never really talked to me again after the book release in May.”
The company declined to comment on Stucky’s departure.
Since leaving Virgin Galactic, Stucky has become more critical of the company on social media. In one tweet, responding to an article that revealed Branson’s own spaceflight did not take the proper trajectory due to what the company said were strong upper winds, Stucky tweeted “the most misleading statement today was @virgingalactic’s.”
“The facts are the pilots failed to trim to achieve the proper pitch rate, the winds were well within limits, they did nothing of substance to address the trajectory error, & entered Class A airspace without authorization,” he wrote.
Virgin Galactic did not respond to additional requests for comment about that specific incident. But in a September statement, the company had said that “although the flight’s ultimate trajectory deviated from our initial plan, it was a controlled and intentional flight path that allowed Unity 22 to successfully reach space and land safely at our Spaceport in New Mexico. At no time were passengers and crew put in any danger as a result of this change in trajectory.”
The statement added that the pilots of the spaceplane encountered high-altitude winds, and “responded appropriately to these changing flight conditions.”
The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial space flights, grounded the company in early September while it investigated the issues surrounding Branson’s flight. The investigation found that it flew outside of its designated FAA airspace for nearly two minutes and that the company failed to notify the FAA about the deviation in the flight path. The FAA closed the investigation and cleared Virgin Galactic for flight after the company agreed to change how it communicates with the FAA during flight operations.
Virgin Galactic was planning to launch its first crewed mission since Branson’s flight in October. But the company now says the flight’s been postponed until after a “planned vehicle enhancement and modification period,” further delaying its plans to begin flying paying customers.
Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier said in a statement about the delay last week that the “decisions are driven by detailed and thorough analysis, and we fly based on the most accurate and comprehensive data available.”
He added that Virgin Galactic vehicles “are designed with significant margins for safety, providing layers of protection that far exceed loads experienced and expected to occur on our flights.”
While Stucky says he’s “extremely grateful” to be joining Blue Origin, the new job means he may no longer get to fly to space because Blue Origin does not currently operate a vehicle that requires pilots. New Shepard, the suborbital space tourism vehicle that took Bezos to space shortly after Branson’s flight in July, is fully autonomous.
“There is no flight promise,” he said. “But never say never is a carrot that works for some of us.”
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