RAF pilot set to soar ‘Above The Clouds’ in Virgin rocket launch over Pacific

An RAF pilot is set to launch a rocket into space from over the Pacific Ocean.

Flight Lieutenant Mathew “Stanny” Stannard is seconded to Virgin Orbit’s space programme and will man the controls of the rocket under the company’s LauncherOne system on Thursday evening.

Live updates of the flight will be broadcast on social media and a public livestream.

Flt Lt Stannard, a Typhoon pilot with one of the RAF’s test and evaluation squadrons, 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.”

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 will be launched from a Boeing 747, taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 9pm UK time.

The rocket will launch seven satellites, including some from the US Department of Defence experimenting in space-based communications.

The mission will be the third for Sir Richard Branson’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.