Virgin Galactic, the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, has successfully launched its first flight for tourists to the edge of space, marking a historic milestone for the industry. The flight, which took place on Thursday, August 10, 2023, carried three passengers who became the first private citizens to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth from above.
A mother-daughter duo and a former Olympian
The three passengers on board the VSS Unity space plane were Keisha Schahaff, a health and wellness coach from Antigua, her daughter Anastatia Mayers, an 18-year-old philosophy and physics student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and Jon Goodwin, a 71-year-old former canoeist who competed in the 1972 Munich Summer Games. They became the first mother-daughter duo and the second person with Parkinson’s disease to travel to space, respectively.
Schahaff and Mayers won their tickets in a fundraiser drawing organized by Omaze, a platform that raises money for various causes by offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences. They donated $10 each to enter the draw, which supported Space for Humanity, a non-profit organization that aims to democratize access to space. Goodwin bought his ticket for $250,000 in 2005, when Virgin Galactic first started selling seats for its future flights.
A 90-minute trip to the edge of space
The journey began at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in New Mexico, where the passengers boarded the VSS Unity as it sat attached beneath the wing of a massive twin-fuselage mothership called VMS Eve. The mothership took off like an airplane and climbed to more than 40,000 feet (12,192 meters), where it released the space plane. The VSS Unity then fired its rocket engine for about one minute, propelling it to supersonic speeds and an altitude of around 85km (280,000ft), which is considered the edge of space by the US government.
At the peak of their flight, the passengers were given the all-clear to unbuckle and enjoy zero gravity for about four minutes. They floated around the cabin, performed somersaults, and gazed out of the windows at the stunning views of Earth and the blackness of space. They then returned to their seats and strapped themselves back in ahead of the re-entry and landing. The entire trip lasted about an hour and a half.
A tearful celebration and a press conference
The flight was livestreamed on Virgin Galactic’s website and social media channels, where viewers could see the reactions of the passengers and hear their communications with mission control. Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder who completed a similar trip in July 2021, shed tears of joy as he celebrated the mission from Antigua, where he was joined by Schahaff’s husband and Mayers’ father.
At a press conference after the flight, Schahaff said she was still “up there” following the experience. “Looking at Earth was the most amazing” part of the trip, she said. Mayers said she was inspired by her mother’s courage and hoped to inspire other young women to pursue their dreams. Goodwin said he was moved by the clarity of Earth from space and hoped to instill in other people with Parkinson’s that they can still do things that are out of the normal.
The three passengers were awarded their astronaut wings by former NASA astronaut Cady Coleman, who also serves as Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor. They also received their official astronaut numbers from the Association of Space Explorers: 011 for Schahaff, 012 for Mayers, and 013 for Goodwin.
A new era for space tourism
The flight was a major step toward delivering on Virgin Galactic’s promise of opening up space for everyone. The company has been developing its suborbital space tourism system since 2004, overcoming technical challenges and tragic setbacks along the way. It now has more than 800 customers who have reserved seats for future flights, including celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Katy Perry, and Justin Bieber.
Virgin Galactic plans to resume ticket sales soon, with prices expected to be higher than the original $250,000. It also intends to fly more test flights this year before starting commercial operations in 2024. The company faces competition from other players in the emerging space tourism market, such as Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and SpaceX, founded by Tesla’s Elon Musk.
Virgin Galactic’s first space tourism flight was not only a remarkable achievement for the company and its passengers, but also a historic moment for humanity. It demonstrated that ordinary people can now access the final frontier and experience the wonders of space for themselves.