In the final moments of his commute, Tee Vong corkscrews into darkness. First, he places his hands through an opening about 18 inches in diameter. His head follows. Then he inexplicably pivots his torso into a narrow tunnel. With another twist, his hips get through. Next he scoots farther into the tunnel to bend a knee, first left leg, then right. When he exits, he follows these steps in reverse.
This is Vong’s office: a twin-fuselage four-jet-engine aircraft called the WhiteKnightTwo. His desk? It’s the interior of a wing of the carbon fiber airplane.
Vong is a mechanic at Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s $500 million commercial venture to take civilians to space. To do so, WhiteKnightTwo, the “mother ship,” will climb to 50,000 feet before releasing its payload, SpaceShipTwo, from beneath that wing. From that height, SpaceShipTwo should rocket out to 50 miles, taking its passengers to the edge of space. There, those aboard will experience about four minutes of weightlessness. The thrill will cost the first passengers $250,000.
On the ground, the company has a maintenance crew of about 50, including 12 “space wrenches,” the Virgin Galactic title for the Federal Aviation Administration-certified airframe and powerplant mechanics who prepare the planes to fly and maintain them when they are grounded.
Vong, the assistant crew chief, is considered critical to the mission: At 5 feet 6 inches and 220 pounds, he’s the only one who can fit into that particular wing cavity to inspect and repair it.
“When I first started doing it, I would get bruises just getting in and out,” Vong said. He lost 40 pounds by running in the California desert during his lunch hours. “It hasn’t been easy doing this, but if it was easy then everyone would be doing it.”
Vong is hardly slight, although he’s now more fit than he was when he started — he laughed and described his former shape as “more of a box.” It’s unfathomable even to his colleagues how he squeezes in; yet somehow, he does. Others haven’t even tried.
It also takes a certain personality to do the work, which can stretch on as long as 14 hours. Last year, he says, he spent 10 months in the wing. That’s a long time to work with a flashlight in a tunnel where the walls crunch your shoulders.
“It’s a thankless job. You have to get in there and crawl around to do those repairs,” said Michael Moses, Virgin Galactic’s director of operations.
WhiteKnightTwo’s upper wing has three bays, two of which hold fuel tanks. At one point, Vong noticed an issue with a flapper valve that keeps fuel from going where it’s not supposed to, which led to a change in inspection protocol. “Tee is hugely dedicated to his work and committed to get the job done and keep the vehicles flying safely,” Moses said.
George T. Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, wrote in an email, “Tee exemplifies the qualities that we seek in all employees at our spaceline: a deep personal commitment to our mission, team work, a sense of fun and an energetic pursuit of excellence.”
Vong understands that nobody envies his niche: “It’s tight in there. It’s claustrophobic. I’ve almost gotten stuck in there a couple times. It’s very hot, especially with summer coming up. It’s not easy work. You’re constantly moving and there’s dust all over the place.”
But he was raised in a family that soldiers through impossible conditions. “Growing up, I’d see my family working hard to try and do better for those around them,” he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the timeline of Vong’s life hosts a constellation of tight spaces. His family fled Cambodia and the communist Khmer Rouge regime led by Pol Pot. In 1977, Vong’s maternal grandfather, a school teacher who had been in the military, was captured by the Khmer Rouge. By 1979, the family got word that Vong’s grandfather was one of the estimated 1.4 million people who had been executed. They left Cambodia that year.
“We had no food to eat,” said Boran Chhan, Vong’s mother. By the time she was 16, daily bombing raids forced her family into the forest. She remembers cooking rice and dried fish over a fire when bombs dropped nearby. She ran with the hot pot on her head. Later she lost most of her hair — it was singed. But, she said, she was able to save the food. It’s a story that stayed with her son.
By the time Vong was born, the family had reached the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand. His first home was a 200- to 300-square foot room, his mother said, shared with his parents and older brother, Samn. His grandmother and uncles lived next door.
After transitioning through two other camps, the family finally made it to the United States in 1985. Vong’s mother, father, brother, grandmother, three uncles, an aunt and her daughter lived in a converted hotel room. Vong was 2; he says it’s his first memory.
“We didn’t speak any English, and we didn’t have any money, we were 10 people in a tiny apartment, in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, which is not very tender at all,” he said, laughing. “We were on welfare and food stamps and had government cheese and Kix [cereal]. Looking back, we’ve come a long way.”
From San Francisco the family moved to Stockton, Calif., which had a large Cambodian community.
No one expected Vong to contribute to space travel. He never aspired to be an astronaut or a pilot. He says he barely graduated from high school.
“It would’ve been way easier to just become a gang member, especially in Stockton or San Jose,” he said. “It could’ve gone a whole different way.”
The fact that it didn’t, he said, “had a lot to do with my family.”
When Bunsun Chhan, Vong’s uncle, attended school for his airframe and powerplant certification, Vong also enrolled, encouraged by his mother. Vong was in school on Sept. 11, 2001. After the terrorist attacks, demand for airplane mechanics stalled. Vong worked at Costco for three years in various positions: bagger, cashier, forklift driver, tire installer. Then he took a job in construction management.
In the meantime, his uncle was hired at Scaled Composites, the company that originally developed WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo and is now owned by Northrop Grumman. Vong joined him at Scaled, where Chhan has worked on both spacecraft. When Virgin Galactic acquired WhiteKnightTwo, Vong came with it.
Vong specializes in composites, but he and his fellow space wrenches maintain everything: the body, the wing, the skin of the aircraft and the engines.
“We check the structure, the structural integrity of the aircraft. We make sure there’s no discrepancies in the wing skin. We check the systems, the wiring, the control cables, the hydraulic systems, the environmental systems, which is the breathing air and the pressurization systems,” he said. “There’s not one thing on this aircraft I haven’t touched.”
In 2014, Virgin Galactic suffered a fatal accident, in which the previous incarnation of SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight. The pilot, Peter Siebold, 43, survived a fall from 40,000 feet. The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, 39, was killed. Federal investigators determined the cause was Alsbury’s error and a system that failed to anticipate it.
To Vong, the loss was colossal. “It was a horrible feeling,” he said. “I was on the program for about two years at that time. It was hard to lose a friend. It was a bad day for everybody.”
Virgin Galactic shares its hangar with the Spaceship Co., the sister company that is building its fleet. This arrangement means that Virgin Galactic, the operator, can inform the manufacturing process and designs. Mechanics, pilots, engineers and designers have input that commercial airlines do not. (Boeing and Airbus build planes around the world, and then airlines take possession.) Because of this communal space and familiarity, the mechanics and pilots actually know one another well.
Branson and his company remain determined to bring space travel to the masses. Their future “astronauts” echo his optimism — after the crash, only 20 canceled their tickets, a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman said. About 700 people have bought $250,000 flights.
In space tourism, Vong has found a passion strong enough to fuel those long, cramped hours. “I have a lot of pride in my work,” he said. “I had no idea someone from my background could be where I am today, doing what I do, trying to put people in space. It’s still kind of surreal to me.”
Ultimately, the company wants five rocket ships and three mother ships, Moses said. Then they’ll see how demand plays out.
“A lot of people think we’re just taking rich people to space and that it’s another toy for rich people to enjoy, but I think taking civilians to space is a big thing,” Vong said. “It’s the next step. For everybody.”
That includes him. The space wrench who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand has his own goal: “To be the first Cambodian in space.”