Reviewed by: Susan Raizer
Title: Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut
Author: Nicholas Schmidle
NSS Amazon link for this book
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Date: May 2021
Retail price: $29.99/$19.99/$14.99/$16.53
Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut is a fast paced, intelligent chronicle of the less public race to develop a spaceship capable of carrying paying civilian customers to space. The book is unique as it minutely describes the highpoints and tragedies, including the death of test pilots and engineers and the loss of vehicles that are the myriad factors surrounding the path to space. The book takes the reader through all the efforts of private space engineering companies, including Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic’s test pilots, engineers, technicians and other key players as they created a space-ready vehicle that would enchant private space adventurers. At the same time, it highlights the career of Virgin’s lead test pilot, Mark Stucky, who got the astronaut bug at age 3 when viewing John Glenn’s historical ride in the Mercury Friendship 7 spacecraft. He became a naval aviator, known as “Forger” in the military and then a test pilot while applying to NASA several times. The success of SpaceShipOne in winning the X-Prize also prompted Mark Stucky to decide that working as an employee of a private company would provide him with a viable path to becoming an astronaut. He never achieved his childhood goal of becoming an astronaut until working for Burt Rutan and Richard Branson, both of whom gave him the opportunity to push the envelope in the development of space planes. He finally was awarded his astronaut wings in 2019 after his historic flight to space on SpaceShipTwo in 2018. Other test pilots and behind the scenes managers and administrators are also introduced to the reader.
The author, Nicholas Schmidle, writes for the New Yorker and is the author of To Live or Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan. He is also a journalist with articles in the New York Times Magazine and the Atlantic. He has also been a journalism professor at Princeton University. He has been awarded the Kurt Schork Award and the finalist in several other literary award programs. When he first started the project, he also found that he has a direct connection with Mark Stucky, as the test pilot served with the author’s father in the military as he was also a naval aviator. The author captured the ‘right stuff’ attitude of the test pilots who flew these experimental vehicles even when injured or sick. What makes the book even more enticing is that the author was embedded more than sixteen times at Virgin Galactic’s Mohave Desert facility to report on the progress, development and test flights of the space plane. He aptly and honestly portrays the players after getting to know them, their though processes, doubts and concerns and personally witnessing the progression of events.
Richard Branson, the eccentric, eclectic and visionary founder of Virgin Airlines, had created telecommunications companies, funded music venues and other unique endeavors. He also sought to offer paying customers what only the military and government agencies could produce, namely a civilian ride to space. By funding and enticing investors with a space ride, the billionaire first employed the engineering expertise of Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composite company, which built the X-Prize award-winning SpaceShipOne, to build him a larger capacity space plane. Eventually, Virgin Galactic established their own engineering and testing facility employing many of the test pilots and engineers formerly employed by Burt Rutan. The engineering took many slow stars as vehicle construction and fuels were tested and found to be unusable for the intended craft.
The book is recommended as fast-reading, thoroughly well-written and understandable, with technical subjects explained for the reader. It is a compelling book that chronicles the lives of the players but also the decades long efforts of private companies like Virgin Galactic to create a vehicle that would accommodate customers who paid at least $200,000 for the ability to fly to space. The book contains numerous black and white photographs to enhance the readers understanding of the people and processes necessary to get the vehicle into the air.
© 2021 Susan Raizer
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