Stucky, sitting below in SpaceShipTwo, consulted his checklist as he and his copilot, Rick Sturckow, made their ascent. They reached the drop point, 43,000 feet above the desert. The WhiteKnightTwo pilot pushed the release button. Thump. SpaceShipTwo dropped away.
“Fire!” said Stucky. Sturckow pulled the rocket motor switch. Clean light. They were off. Stucky held the nose flat, according to plan, but once they broke the sound barrier, he began trimming the horizontal stabilizers. Now the spaceship was vertical, shooting for the stars.
They sliced through the thinning air, the rocket burning about 200 pounds of nitrous oxide and rubber a second, becoming lighter and faster. “She felt like a thoroughbred,” Stucky said. They were in unknown, uncharted aerodynamic territory, but Stucky never felt more sure of anything in his life.
“Two-point-eight Mach,” said Sturckow.
“Copy,” said Stucky, a lilt suddenly detectable in his voice.
They were a minute into the flight. As Sturckow shut down the motor, Stucky checked the altimeter—135,000 feet—and glanced at a reading on the console that showed their estimated final altitude: 275,000 feet. Good attitude. Minimal roll rates.
Stucky got on the radio. “Great motor burn, everybody,” he said. “We’re going to space, Richard!”
Lead test pilot Mark Stucky, left, with Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson.
Branson was squinting against the sun, tracking SpaceShipTwo’s contrails across the blue morning sky. Covering his face with both hands, Branson cratered with emotion. His son, Sam, standing next to him, placed a hand on his father’s back for support. The outline of a single tear streaked the side of Branson’s face.
Stucky was 51 miles above the Earth, laughing. He didn’t know what else to do. He had been transported to some otherworldly fun house, as sunlight filled the cockpit, lighting him and Sturckow up like stage actors.
Lifting his visor, Stucky looked out the window at the pitch black of space and the majestic blue of the Earth, and he could hardly believe his eyes. He grasped for an emotion but could only laugh, incredulously. “Ha, ha. Look outside, man,” he said.
Later, on the ground, as I stood near Stucky as he celebrated, I tried to clarify my role. Was I standing there as a reporter? Or as a friend? We all live by some code or another. But we, as reporters, could be especially sanctimonious about ours—burying our biases under the soapboxes we stand upon, preaching the virtues of objectivity.
But this story, more than any other, forced me to reckon with that code, to consider what it meant when a source was also a subject and later became a friend; what it meant when a source provided not just information but inspiration; what it meant when a source influenced your life in the process of you writing about theirs; what it meant to simultaneously maintain professional objectivity and personal awe; and what it meant when one of those outlier cases, the ones infused with awe, was also your father.
I had invested more than four years of my life into Stucky and his. And though the blinking light of my recorder provided some constant reminder of our unspoken roles—he talked, I recorded—the line between personal and professional dissolved over time. I felt his pains and triumphs.
I wondered whether it would be awkward to hug Stucky or more awkward not to. How did we characterize our relationship? Friends and family hugged. Writers and subjects shook hands. I extended my hand, but the gesture felt sterile.
I reached around with my other arm for a hug.
Nicholas Schmidle writes for The New Yorker and is the author of Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut, from which this article was adapted.