Virgin Galactic sends Kern pilots to space

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Virgin Galactic sends Kern pilots to spaceVirgin Galactic owner Richard Branson (center) celebrates a successful launch and return with SpaceShipTwo pilots C.J. Sturkow (left) and Mark Stucky — Photo by Stu Witt

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Another major milestone for the commercial space industry, and a handful of additional “firsts” for the high desert aerospace corridor, were captured Thursday morning as pioneers of private spaceflight, press and space enthusiasts witnessed a launch from Mojave Air and Space Port that, among other things, turned two Kern County pilots into astronauts.

SpaceShipTwo, piloted by Mark “Forger” Stucky and C.J. Sturckow, was ferried to 43,000 feet before being launched from its tow vehicle and traveling to about 51 miles above the earth — meeting the Federal Aviation Administration’s definition of space.

Virgin Galactic owner Richard Branson, who purchased SpaceShipTwo and the associated technology from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2004, is now one giant leap closer to achieving his goal of owning the world’s first commercial space liner.

Also playing a central role to this particular space race is Mojave — which became a champion of entrepreneurs under the leadership of Ridgecrest resident, and longtime spaceport CEO, Stu Witt, who was also on hand to witness the successful launch and return of the craft.

Carving out a name for the port as a “safe haven” for private space exploration in the early 2000s, Mojave became home to the X-Prize races, which ultimately saw SpaceShip One make three civilian-piloted trips to space to win the $10 million prize.

X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, along with benefactor Anousheh Ansari, were also on hand for Thursday’s milestone.

“I don’t think many people fully understand just how difficult it is to get humans into space,” said Witt. “This has taken 14 years and a tremendous commitment on a personal level and corporate level. The cost — not just in dollars but in human lives — is unbelievable.

“Today is a big day for Kern County. Two American astronauts were made right here. That’s an incredible achievement.”

Witt said that when he began the endeavor to support the burgeoning commercial space industry, “The needle was already pointed in the right direction. We just capitalized on the trends and the movements. But we bet our future on this industry, and it worked.”

He recalled the early days, when he predicted to a local audience that the only Americans going to space would be entering from the high desert of California.

“People laughed at me. But now we are looking at people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Richard Branson, and they are not laughing any more.”

Are days like today what he envisioned as the outcome?

“It was certainly the goal. But it all had to start with a dream. And there are a lot of companies who went all-in toward that vision,” said Witt.

“I take a lot of pride in, and have enormous gratitude to, the people of Kern County who trusted in this idea. This is a big deal.”

Witt retired from Mojave in 2015, handing the reins over to Karina Drees. “She is doing a phenomenal job,” he said. “Drive around and see what she’s changed in just three years — more businesses, more activity, more jobs. It’s just gorgeous.”

While Witt still makes his home in Ridgecrest, he now serves on the newly reestablished National Space Council.

Story First Published: 2018-12-14