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Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut

Join us for a Book at Wilson event with New Yorker writer and author of TEST GODS, Nick Schmidle.

Date & Time

May. 6, 2021
12:00pm – 1:00pm ET
Test Gods book cover


In the spirit of The Right Stuff, updated for the 21st century, Test Gods is an epic story about extreme bravery and sacrifice, about the thin line between lunacy and genius. Most of all, it is a story about the pursuit of meaning in our lives—and the fulfillment of our dreams.

Working from exclusive inside reporting, New Yorker writer Nicholas Schmidle tells the remarkable story of the test pilots, engineers, and visionaries behind Virgin Galactic’s campaign to build a space tourism company. Schmidle follows a handful of characters—Mark Stucky, Virgin’s lead test pilot; Richard Branson, the eccentric billionaire funding the venture; Mike Moses, the grounded, unflappable president; Mike Alsbury, the test pilot killed in a fatal crash; and others—through personal and professional dramas, in pursuit of their collective goal: to make space tourism a reality.

Along the way, Schmidle weaves his relationship with his father—a former fighter pilot and decorated war hero—into the tragedies and triumphs that Branson’s team confronts out in the Mojave desert as they design, build, and test-fly their private rocket ship. Gripping and novelistic, Test Gods leads us, through human drama, into a previously unseen world—and beyond.

Selected Quotes

"I certainly think we’re at an inflection point; Yesterday, Blue Origin announces that it's going to begin finally and officially accepting reservations for seats on its suborbital space tourism rocket. Last night, SpaceX successfully test lands its Starship rocket, and the day before SpaceX launched a bunch of satellites into space. I mean the launch pace is astounding—but not all of these companies are clearly going to make it."

"What [Virgin Galactic] realized and what they have realized over the course of the previous 17 years is that scaling propulsion is a lot more difficult than one would imagine. It’s not taking a small box car and making it a little bit bigger and…they found it very, very difficult."

"The human factor is central to the whole philosophy at Virgin Galactic. These other companies are run by folks who made their money in the tech world and there is this belief I think that you can program your way through human fallibility. At Virgin Galactic with Richard Branson at the helm, he’s old school and has always been fascinated with the romance of these test pilots with their scarves flopping in the breeze flying these rockets. But [with that], the opportunities for things to go wrong are multiplied numerous times…"

"We all know that feeling of when you're in the middle of working on something and you get a software update from Microsoft and the last thing you want to do is somehow do something that's going to screw up whatever word file you're working on. Most of us hit ignore and say I'll deal with that later. This very much what [the Virgin engineers] did. The software update came through and didn't seem critical so they decided that they would just wait till after the flight."

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