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Astronaut wings ceremony
Wearing their astronaut wings, SpaceShipTwo test pilots Rick Sturckow and Mark Stucky face the cameras as Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, flashes a thumbs-up sign. (FAA / Virgin Galactic Photo)

Two Virgin Galactic test pilots are now wearing the first commercial astronaut wings to be awarded since SpaceShipOne’s historic spaceflights in 2004.

Last December’s test flight, piloted by Mark “Forger” Stucky and Rick “CJ” Sturckow in the SpaceShipTwo Unity rocket plane, was nearly as historic. It rose to an altitude of 51.4 miles, exceeding the 50-mile benchmark that’s used by the U.S. military and the Federal Aviation Administration for conferring astronaut wings.

Stucky and Sturckow received their wings today during a ceremony at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Later in the day, the rocket motor that powered the pair past the milestone was officially turned over to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum for exhibit.

December’s achievement at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port marked the first private-sector rocket trip to reach that altitude in almost 15 years, and the first flight from U.S. soil to merit astronaut recognition since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttle fleet in 2011. It may not have reached 100 kilometers (62.5 miles), which is currently the internationally accepted boundary for spaceflight. But don’t try telling that to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who pinned the wings onto Stucky’s and Sturckow’s flight suits.

“These astronaut wings celebrate so much more than technological achievement. … They celebrate grit,” Chao said.

She noted that both men served in the Marine Corps, “where ‘quit’ is not in the vocabulary, but ‘grit’ certainly is.”

Sturckow also served in NASA’s astronaut corps, from 1995 to 2013, and flew on four shuttle missions before retiring from the space agency to join the SpaceShipTwo flight test program. Stucky has been a pilot for decades — for the Marines, NASA, United Airlines, the Air Force and then for Scaled Composites, the Mojave-based company that built SpaceShipOne.

Stucky joined Scaled years after his test-pilot teammates, Mike Melvill and Brian Binney, won their wings for SpaceShipOne’s prize-winning flights. He played a role in testing the first SpaceShipTwo, known as VSS Enterprise, but was not at the controls when the craft broke up during a test flight in 2014.

Co-pilot Michael Alsbury died in that accident, and pilot Pete Siebold was seriously injured. The accident forced years’ worth of review, redesign and reorganization during the construction of Unity, the second SpaceShipTwo plane. One effect of the reorganization was that Stucky and Sturckow went from Scaled to Virgin Galactic.

Alsbury won a posthumous nod at today’s ceremony from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., whose district includes Mojave. Speaking on NASA’s Day of Remembrance, McCarthy said Alsbury deserved a place among others who lost their lives on the final frontier.

“His sacrifice should inspire gratitude and wonderment, a commitment to carry forward their legacy,” McCarthy said.

Part of that legacy could arguably include the wave of would-be passengers who are waiting to take suborbital space rides on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity plane or on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship.

“I only hope there will be thousands more to come, that even you in this audience will be standing up here,” McCarthy said.

Richard Branson, the British-born billionaire founder of Virgin Galactic, said today’s ceremony marked “a moment of historical significance, a moment of inspiration, of optimism for the future.”

If the SpaceShipTwo development program proceeds as hoped, Branson himself could be riding into space within just a few months.

“Yes, the road for all of us has been challenging,” Branson told the audience. “But as we stand here at the start of 2019, it is self-evident that we are finally at the dawn of a new age of space exploration which will see reusable space vehicles — built and operated by commercially successful private companies — transform lives in ways which we, I think, have yet to fully comprehend,” he said.

Chao struck a similar tone, saying America was on the verge of a “rocket renaissance.”

She pointed to the proliferation of commercial spaceports and noted that more such facilities are under consideration in Alabama, Georgia and Hawaii. She noted that SpaceX and Boeing are on the verge of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station. And she said regulatory reforms being put in place by her agency would make it easier for commercial space ventures to reach new milestones.

“We are just at the beginning of an exciting era,” she said.

Such developments should help boost the value of the global space economy from its current level of nearly $400 billion to triple that amount in the next seven years.

“Our country’s innovative commercial space sector is positioned to win an impressive share of that growing market,” Chao said. “And this sector will not only generate revenue. It will drive technological innovation, provide access to extraterrestrial sources of energy and raw materials, and create whole new industries. And that means the creation of whole new job categories, such as commercial astronauts, that some of our young people here may one day attain.”

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