An RAF pilot has taken off on a flight to help launch a rocket into space from over the Pacific Ocean.
Flight Lieutenant Mathew “Stanny” Stannard, who is seconded to Sir Richard Branson’s satellite launch company Virgin Orbit, is part of a crew which took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California for the launch on Thursday evening.
He is helping work the controls of the rocket under the company’s LauncherOne system which is to be released from a modified Boeing 747-400 named Cosmic Girl.
Flt Lt Stannard, a Typhoon pilot with one of the RAF’s test and evaluation squadrons, is part of a crew on Cosmic Girl alongside chief pilot Eric Bippert, who has over 1,000 hours of experience in test flights, plus launch engineers Sarah Barnes and Bryce Schaefer.
Their role was to monitor data from the aircraft and the rocket from their stations on the upper deck.
Virgin Orbit tweeted “Now we’re soaring” after the take off for the journey of about an hour to the Pacific Ocean drop point where LauncherOne will be released to begin powered flight to orbit.
Sir Richard Branson said he was “excited” and “slightly nervous” after watching the take off.
He said: “You can never be sure in these early flights whether every mission is going to be successful, (I am) just on the edge of my seat.
“It is incredible what the whole team has accomplished.
“It is always incredible to be watching and a great privilege.”
Sir Richard said: “I think that the people who question space exploration, they just don’t realise how much it offers to mankind back here on Earth. One of our satellites that is going up today will be monitoring agriculture and crops around the world.
“It is that wonderful diversity of different organisations and different companies that have got brilliant ideas to try to use space to better things here on Earth.”
Virgin Orbit has said the mission’s name, Above The Clouds, pays homage to hip hop group Gang Starr’s 1998 album Moment Of Truth, on which the song Above The Clouds features the lyrics: “Above the clouds, where the sounds are original – infinite skills create miracles.”
The rocket is to launch seven satellites, including some from the US Department of Defence experimenting in space-based communications.
The mission is the third for Sir Richard’s company, the LauncherOne system has previously launched 19 satellites.
In the Above The Clouds mission, one satellite has been made in Glasgow by Spire Global, a data analytics company involved in tracking weather patterns.
Flt Lt Stannard’s return to the RAF should help boost the UK’s understanding of the military uses of small satellites, according to the Ministry of Defence.
The airman, who graduated from RAF officer training in May 2007, has amassed more than 1,000 hours on Tornados during multiple combat tours.
Flt Lt Stannard said at the time of his secondment in 2019 that “being involved in Virgin Orbit’s space programme is a truly unique opportunity”.
He added: “This programme is pushing the boundaries of our understanding of space so it’s a real privilege to be part of it and I’m looking forward to bringing the skills and knowledge I gain back to the RAF.”