Book Reviews - Summer 2021

From Mojave to the Moon

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The new space race looks to put the superrich into orbit

By M. G. Lord | June 1, 2021
Stucky (right) with SpaceShipTwo copilot Frederick Sturckow and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson (PA Images/Alamy)
Stucky (right) with SpaceShipTwo copilot Frederick Sturckow and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson (PA Images/Alamy)

Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut by Nicholas Schmidle; Henry Holt, 333 pp., $29.99

On its surface, Test Gods tells the story of Mark Stucky, the lead test pilot for Virgin Galactic, a space tourism startup in Mojave, California, as he flies the company’s experimental space plane to the “edge of space,” 62 miles above the surface of Earth, to become one of the rare non-NASA pilots to earn astronaut wings. The book also charts the birth and ascendancy of private space travel and the brilliant if wacky characters devoted to transforming a concept from science fiction into a commercial reality.

At its center, however, it is a story of fathers and sons—and this emotional core ought to grab readers who might not care about rocket propellant or lifting surfaces or horizontal stabilizers. Of course Stucky became a military pilot: his father was a conscientious objector in World War II, and he reacted against this tradition. Of course author Nicholas Schmidle became a New Yorker writer who chose to cover wars rather than fight in them: his father was a legendary combat pilot who kept his family in the dark about his work. “Through Stucky …” Schmidle explains, “I could rummage vicariously into my father’s inner life, to try to learn something about him, to try to figure out what it was that made him do what he did.”

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