As Virgin Galactic continues preparations for its next flight test window, the commercial space carrier is introducing one of its pilots for its first flight from New Mexico, former NASA astronaut CJ Sturckow.
The space carrier was due to fly its next test flight between November 19 and 23 but the flight had to be rescheduled due to COVID-19 restrictions at its New Mexico facilities.
The rescheduled flight will represent a number of firsts: it will be Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight from its commercial headquarters at Spaceport America; the first-time humans will fly into space from the state of New Mexico; and left-seat Pilot for the flight, CJ Sturckow, will become the first astronaut to have flown into space from three different US states.
Sturckow was in the cockpit during Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity flight to space in December 2018. He completed four flights to the International Space Station during his time as a NASA Astronaut before joining Virgin Galactic – and the next flight will become his sixth time flying into space.
From TOPGUN to NASA
Sturckow first became a pilot before training as an astronaut, serving in the Fleet Marine Force for four years flying the F/A-18 Hornet. He attended the Navy Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as TOPGUN, USAF Test Pilot School and became a F/A-18 test pilot at the Naval Air Warfare Center before being selected for NASA.
“I’ve been with Virgin Galactic for seven years now and while I have flown to space as a Pilot here, most of my energy has actually been focused on working with our subject matter experts and fellow pilots to maintain the SpaceShipTwo publications.” Sturckow said. “We are always learning better ways to operate the vehicle and that information has to be documented. I also serve as the Pilot Liaison to the propulsion and crew station teams. Other Virgin Galactic Pilots are responsible for flight test, avionics, safety, training, and VMS Eve publications. We also have to maintain currency in single and multi-engine aircraft, as well as gliders.”
The next flight will demonstrate complete end-to-end Space Flight System (SFS) from New Mexico, which has already been demonstrated twice from Mojave before moving to Spaceport America. Sturckow said: “Since moving, we’ve completed two important glide test flights from New Mexico to validate some technical updates to the vehicle and familiarise ourselves with the airspace and manage integrations with all ground-based agencies involved in flight operations. Once we have our new test flight window set the team will fly SpaceShipTwo Unity to space from New Mexico and then we’ll do it again with teammates in the cabin on a subsequent flight.”
Test flight will validate New Mexico powered flight operations
The main objectives of Virgin Galactic’s next test flight will be for the propulsion team to validate New Mexico powered flight operations. The team has already performed several positioning exercises of their equipment, as well as a nitrous oxide tanking exercise. About a week before the flight, a full wet mission rehearsal will be performed where they will top off the forward pressurant tank with helium and then fill the main oxidizer tank with nitrous oxide to verify they are able to hit their loading targets for a powered flight. They will then reclaim the N2O and begin preparations for the flight.
The team has also made upgrades to the horizontal stabilizers (known as H-Stabs), which are designed to enhance performance of the spaceship during powered flight. The seat recline feature on Virgin Galactic’s passenger seats will also be tested for the first time in zero gravity with instrumented test mannequins strapped in.
In the months leading up to the flight, Virgin Galactic’s engineering and maintenance teams have been working to prepare the mothership, VMS Eve and SpaceShipTwo Unity for the flight. Sturckow said he is looking forward to taking the first passengers into space. Sturckow said: “Once you’ve flown in space yourself, you can’t wait to share that experience with someone else! Everyone at Virgin Galactic is excited about this upcoming milestone which brings us one step closer to our ultimate goal of running commercial flight operations and make space accessible to all.”