23 November 2020

Meet CJ Sturckow; one of the Virgin Galactic Pilots for the First Spaceflight from New Mexico


We’re ready to complete pre-flight preparation for our next spaceflight once we set our new flight test window. We temporarily minimized our footprint in New Mexico following the new two-week health order put in place – you can read more here.  This flight will represent a number of firsts: it will be our first spaceflight from our commercial headquarters at Spaceport America; it’s the first-time humans will fly into space from the state of New Mexico; and our left-seat Pilot for the flight, CJ Sturckow, will become the first astronaut to have flown into space from three different U.S states.

CJ was in the cockpit during our first flight to space in December 2018, and he had already completed four flights to the International Space Station during his time as a NASA Astronaut before joining Virgin Galactic – our next flight will represent his sixth time flying into space. In this blog, we discover how he first became a pilot before training as an astronaut, and ask him if the view of Earth from space is as incredible as the first time, every time.

Can you remember when you decided you wanted to become a Pilot?

I always thought aviation and space were cool.  When I was a kid, a friend of my dad’s took us flying in his small plane.  However, my interests developed elsewhere.  I became involved with off-road racing in Baja, California, which led me to the Cal Poly Society of Automotive Engineers.  An Engineering Professor observed me organizing the team for our next race and thought I might have some leadership ability.  He encouraged me to join the Marine Corps and become a pilot.  I stayed in touch with that same professor and he was there in Mojave when Mark Stucky and I flew SpaceShipTwo Unity to space in December 2018.

Once you knew you wanted to be a Pilot, what steps did you take to realize your dream?

I had been racing dirt track stock cars at Santa Maria Speedway and Oildale Speedway near Bakersfield.  When I decided to join the Marines, I thought it might be a good idea to take some flying lessons.  I sold my stock car to pay for a few flights and then finally soloed an aircraft.  While at flight school they expect you to fly the Navy way [the Navy way simply means to fly the way they train you – not based on prior learnings], but having some prior flying experience was helpful.

 How did you end up at NASA?

After flight school, I served in the Fleet Marine Force for four years flying the F/A-18 Hornet.  Our squadron, VMFA-333, was deployed to the Western Pacific for seven months.  During this time, I was lucky enough to receive training from some of the best mentors in places like Japan, Korea, and the Philippines.  When we returned, I was sent to the Navy Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as TOPGUN, where I was trained to lead large fleets of up to 30 planes.  Following eight months stationed in Bahrain, I was sent to the USAF Test Pilot School, where pilots are trained to apply their operational skills to evaluate new aircraft and systems.  Following this, I reported to the Naval Air Warfare Center – Aircraft Division at Pax River for duty as an F/A-18 test pilot in the areas of loads, flutter, carrier suitability, flying qualities, and performance.  It was at this point that I was selected for NASA.

What did you accomplish while at NASA?

A common misperception is that NASA Astronauts only spend time training for their own missions.  Actually, most of my 18 years in Houston were spent supporting other missions.  I worked as a capsule communicator (CAPCOM) in mission control for a majority of those years.  I also led the support operations at Kennedy Space Center, strapping in crews for launch and then getting them off the Shuttle after landing.  In between missions, I had leadership roles in the Shuttle and International Space Station (“ISS”) branches.  Finally, I served as the Deputy Chief of the Astronaut Office.  Without dedicated team members performing all of these supporting functions, the NASA spaceflights wouldn’t happen.

What’s a normal day at work for a Virgin Galactic Pilot? 

Virgin Galactic Pilots have similar collateral duties to the ones at 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.  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.

You flew to the ISS four times on the Space Shuttle and once into space on SpaceShipTwo Unity. What’s special about the view from Unity when compared to your previous flights?

The view of Earth is actually much clearer from SpaceShipTwo.  You’re still in space but not flying quite as high as the ISS so you can pick out extra detail.

What are you most looking forward to on the next Virgin Galactic flight?

We’re most looking forward to operating the complete end-to-end Space Flight System (SFS) from New Mexico.  Virgin Galactic has twice demonstrated the success of the Space Flight System design by flying to space twice from Mojave.  Following this accomplishment, the team packed up all of the necessary equipment and personnel, moving them 830 miles eastward to Spaceport America, which was an enormous task!  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.

What are the main objectives of this test flight?

This will be the first opportunity for the propulsion team to validate New Mexico powered flight operations.  They have already performed several positioning exercises of their equipment, as well as a nitrous oxide tanking exercise.  About a week before the flight, they will perform a full wet mission rehearsal 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 made upgrades to the horizontal stabilizers (known as H-Stabs), which are designed to enhance performance of the spaceship during powered flight. The team had already been working on this system for the next spaceship and it is great to be able to bring that hardware online early with SpaceShipTwo Unity. The system has performed well during the two glide flights, and this next flight will verify performance during rocket-powered flight.

The spaceship interiors team will also be initiating the seat recline feature on our passenger seats for the first time in zero gravity to test the system before we progress to having passengers on board.  While we have flown passenger seats on previous flights, this will be the first time in flight where we actively recline the seats once in space. For this first test of the seat recline in a space environment, we will have instrumented test mannequins strapped in.

The payloads team will be flying three NASA payloads as part of the NASA Flight Opportunities Program too.  That means that on this flight, rather than stopping the vehicle pitch in the inverted position (“upside down”) with all the windows of SpaceShipTwo Unity pointed at the Earth, we will instead pitch 270 degrees to get to the entry attitude as soon as possible.  This maneuver will maximize time for the payloads to remain in data collection mode until just prior to re-entry. That’s one of the great things about our system, because it’s Pilot-flown we’re able to fly different mission profiles and meet the needs of our passengers in the cabin – whether that’s payloads or people.

In the months leading up to this flight our engineering and maintenance teams have been working hard to prepare both our mothership, VMS Eve and SpaceShipTwo Unity for the flight.  It will be great to validate that their efforts have been highly successful to prepare the SFS for this flight and subsequent test flights.

Are you looking forward to flying Future Astronauts in the future?

Absolutely.  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.




George T. Whitesides is the Chair of the Space Advisory Board, where he is responsible for bringing together aerospace leaders to advise the Virgin Galactic senior management team on the journey towards regular commercial spaceflight, developing the next generation vehicles and exploring new opportunities. Previously, George served as the Chief Space Officer of Virgin Galactic, spearheading the development of future technologies, including high speed, point-to-point travel and orbital flight, after stepping down as CEO in 2020.

George joined Virgin Galactic in 2010 as Chief Executive Officer. During George’s 10 years with the Company, he built the company from 30 people to a workforce of over 900, successfully guiding Virgin Galactic through its human space flight R&D and flight test program, culminating in two space flights. These historic flights saw the first humans launched into space from US soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle, as well as the first woman to fly on a commercial space vehicle. George led the transition of operations from Mojave, California to Spaceport America, New Mexico, and oversaw the company’s successful public listing making it a multi-billion dollar company and creating the world’s first publicly traded human spaceflight venture.

Prior to Virgin Galactic, George served as Chief of Staff for NASA. Upon departure from the American space agency, he received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award the agency confers.

George’s volunteer service includes Caltech’s Space Innovation Council, Princeton University’s Advisory Council for Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and the Antelope Valley Economic Development & Growth Enterprise. He is a fellow of the UK Royal Aeronautical Society and an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

He previously served as Vice Chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, chair of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group for the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, a member of the Board of Directors of Virgin Galactic, a member of the Board of Trustees of Princeton University, co-chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Space Technologies, and the Board of Virgin Unite USA. George has testified on American space policy before the United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration Policy. An honors graduate of Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, George later earned a master’s degree in geographic information systems and remote sensing from the University of Cambridge, and a Fulbright Scholarship to Tunisia. George is a licensed private pilot and certified parabolic flight coach.

He resides in California with his wife Loretta and two children.




Colonel Chris Hadfield is a heavily decorated astronaut, engineer, and test pilot who has commanded the International Space Station. Formerly NASA’s Director of Operations in Russia and veteran of three spaceflights, Hadfield’s many awards include the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Exceptional Service Medal. Hadfield is a three-time NYT bestselling author, a renowned musician, an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, chair of the board of the Open Lunar Foundation, and host of several internationally acclaimed television series. In addition, Hadfield leads the space stream at the Creative Destruction Lab, one of the world’s top tech incubators.




Dr. Sandra H. “Sandy” Magnus is the Principal at AstroPlanetview, LLC. Most recently she served as the Deputy Director of Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the Undersecretary of Research and Engineering. In that role she served as the “Chief Engineer” for the Department of Defense establishing engineering policy, propagating best practices and working to connect the engineering community across the department.

Dr. Magnus is the former Executive Director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Prior to leading AIAA, she was a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps for 16 years. During her time at NASA she flew in space on the STS-112 shuttle mission in 2002, and on the final shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011. In addition, she flew to the International Space Station on STS-126 in November 2008, served as flight engineer and science officer on Expedition 18, and returned home on STS-119 after four and a half months on board.

Following her assignment on Station, she served at NASA Headquarters in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. Her last duty at NASA, after STS-135, was as the deputy chief of the Astronaut Office.

While at NASA, Dr. Magnus worked extensively with the international community, including the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), as well as with Brazil on facility-type payloads. She also spent time in Russia developing and integrating operational products and procedures for the International Space Station.

Before joining NASA, Dr. Magnus worked for McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Company as a stealth engineer. While at McDonnell Douglas, she worked on internal R&D and on the Navy’s A-12 Attack Aircraft program.

Dr. Magnus has received numerous awards, including the NASA Space Flight Medal, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the 40 at 40 Award (given to former collegiate women athletes to recognize the impact of Title IX).




Dr. David A. Whelan is the SVP Chief-Scientist of Cubic Corporation. Dr. Whelan retired from Boeing in 2017, as the Vice President, Engineering (BDS) and Board of Directors for HRL Laboratories. Whelan served as Director of the Tactical Technology Office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and began his career at Northrop as designer of the B-2 Stealth Bomber. Whelan is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a fellow of the American Physical Society and IEEE. He earned his Ph.D. Physics from UCLA; He holds over 75 US patents.