Virgin Galactic Hires Former NASA Astronaut as Spaceship Pilot

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Virgin Galactic Hires Former NASA Astronaut as Spaceship Pilot
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Former NASA space shuttle pilot CJ Sturckow left the space agency to join Virgin Galactic.

Just a week after Virgin Galactic made history with its first rocket-powered test flight, the commercial spaceflight company announced that it is hiring two veteran pilots, including a former NASA astronaut, who will help bring space tourists to new heights above Earth.

Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael "Sooch" Masucci and former NASA space shuttle commander Frederick "CJ" Sturckow will work out of Virgin Galactic's Mojave, Calif., location to conduct flight training and testing with the suborbital SpaceShipTwo and its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, the company said in a statement.

Sturckow is the first astronaut to be plucked from NASA's ranks by Virgin Galactic. He logged more than 1,200 hours in space over four shuttle missions, including STS-88, the first U.S. launch to the International Space Station in 1998. A retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, Sturckow also has 26 years of military flight experience under his belt. [Photos: Virgin Galactic's 1st SpaceShipTwo Powered Flight Test]

"CJ will certainly be missed by the Astronaut Office," said Bob Behnken, chief of the Astronaut Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. "He was a role model for leadership, and his expertise as an aviator and shuttle commander led to the success of the shuttle and station missions. His experience in spaceflight and ground operations will be difficult to replace within our organization. We look forward to his continued contributions to the future of spaceflight as he moves on to the next phase of his career."

Masucci, meanwhile, is an experienced test and combat pilot who has logged more than 9,000 flying hours in 70 different types of airplanes and gliders. 

A suborbital trip aboard SpaceShipTwo promises to bring passengers to the edge of space and back for $200,000 a ride. The flights would not make a full orbit of Earth, but they would allow passengers to experience brief periods of weightlessness and glimpse the planet from space.

"Viewing the Earth from space is such a unique and unforgettable experience," Sturckow said in a May 8 statement. "I'm excited to be a part of the Virgin Galactic team that is revolutionizing access to space, making this opportunity a possibility for all."

Virgin Galactic, founded by the British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, held its latest, and 26th, test flight of SpaceShipTwo on April 29 at California's Mojave Air and Space Port.

The vehicle was brought into the air by the carrier WhiteKnightTwo. After it was released, SpaceShipTwo went on to reach a maximum altitude of 56,000 feet (17,000 meters) before it flew back to Earth. In a first, the space plane also fired its rocket engines during the flight, which propelled the vehicle to a supersonic speed of Mach 1.2. (Mach 1, the speed of sound, is about 762 mph, or 1,226 km/h, at sea level.)

Virgin Galactic officials have said that SpaceShipTwo could carry passengers as soon as this year or 2014. More than 500 people have signed up for the flights, which will be run out of Spaceport America in New Mexico once the testing phase is complete.

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