Virgin Galactic launches first tourism mission after decades of promises

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Virgin Galactic — the space tourism company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson — finally launched its first space tourists to the edge of the cosmos, a major step toward delivering on decades of promises.

The company’s rocket-powered space plane, VSS Unity, took off at 8:30 a.m. MT from a New Mexico spaceport attached to a massive twin-fuselage mothership.

It carried three customers: entrepreneur and health and wellness coach Keisha Schahaff and her daughter Anastatia Mayers — the first space travelers from Antigua who won their seats in a fundraiser drawing — as well as former Olympian Jon Goodwin, who competed as a canoeist in the 1972 Munich Summer Games. Goodwin became the second person with Parkinson’s disease to travel to space.

The group’s journey began at Virgin Galactic’s spaceport in New Mexico, where the passengers boarded VSS Unity as it sat attached beneath the wing of the mothership called VMS Eve.

VMS Eve took off much like an airplane, barreling down a runway before ascending to more than 40,000 feet (12,192 meters). After reaching its designated altitude, VMS Eve released the VSS Unity, which then fired its rocket engine for about one minute as it swooped directly upward, sending it vaulting toward the stars.

The vehicle ventured more than 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, the altitude the US government considers the edge of outer space. (Internationally, the Kármán line, 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, is often used to mark the boundary between our planet and space — but there’s a lot of gray area.)

The space plane reached supersonic speeds as it hurled upward. And at the peak of its flight, the vehicle spent a few minutes in weightlessness as it entered free fall and glided back to the spaceport for a runway landing at 9:30 a.m. MT. The journey lasted an hour.

After returning to Earth, Goodwin described the flight as “a completely surreal experience” and “without a doubt the most exciting day of my life.”

“I was shocked at the things that you feel,” Mayer said. “You are so much more connected to everything than you would expect to be. You felt like a part of the team, part of the ship, part of the universe, part of Earth. That was incredible and I’m still starstruck.”

“This experience also has given me this beautiful feeling that if I can do this, I can do anything,” Schahaff said.

Meet the crew

This mission came on the heels of the success of Virgin Galactic’s first commercial mission, which launched in June. That inaugural flight was a research-focused mission with Italian air force-funded passengers — rather than celebrities and wealthy thrill seekers similar to those flown by Virgin Galactic’s chief competitor, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. (Future Virgin Galactic flights, however, are expected to include high-profile customers.)

Thursday’s mission marked Virgin Galactic’s first to include tourists, or passengers flying for the experience rather than in a professional capacity.

Schahaff and her daughter Mayers won their seats in a drawing that raised $1.7 million in grants for Space for Humanity, a nonprofit focused on expanding access to space.

They were among the first from the Caribbean islands to travel to space; a Jamaican American and Virgin Galactic employee flew on a test mission in May.

“When I was two years old, just looking up to the skies, I thought, ‘How can I get there?’ But, being from the Caribbean, I didn’t see how something like this would be possible,” Schahaff said in a news release last month. “The fact that I am here, the first to travel to space from Antigua, shows that space really is becoming more accessible.”

Mayers, 18, is a second-year undergraduate studying philosophy and physics at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She became the second-youngest person to travel to space, according to Virgin Galactic. (The current record belongs to Oliver Daemen, who was 18 when he accompanied Bezos on Blue Origin’s inaugural passenger flight in 2021.)

Goodwin was one of the earliest ticket holders on Virgin Galactic, which opened its first sales more than a decade ago.

Goodwin said he was determined not to let his 2014 Parkinson’s diagnosis stand in the way of joining a flight.

“And now for me to go to space with Parkinson’s is completely magical,” he said in a news release. “I hope this inspires all others facing adversity and shows them that challenges don’t have to inhibit or stop them from pursuing their dreams.”

Advocates have long made the case that space travel is uniquely suited for people with physical disabilities, as the weightless environment could prove easier to navigate and enhance mobility.

The European Space Agency recently enlisted John McFall, a Paralympic sprinter who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident when he was 19, to test that hypothesis further. McFall will participate in feasibility studies to pinpoint how to adapt space stations and other spacecraft to suit the needs of people with disabilities.

What’s next for space tourism

Carrying its first tourists is a massive milestone for Virgin Galactic, which was founded in 2004 and has long missed deadlines for delivering on promises to conduct frequent trips to the edge of space.

Now that it’s operational, the company can turn toward its lengthy backlog of customers who have signed up for a flight. Virgin Galactic has sold about 800 tickets, including 600 at prices up to $250,000 and another couple hundred at $450,000 per ticket.

During an August 4 call with investors, CEO Michael Colglazier called the company’s recent successes an “outstanding achievement.”

“Galactic 02 is going to set the stage for a new era of suborbital human spaceflight that will dramatically broaden access to space for private individuals,” he said, using the name for Thursday’s mission.

In the lead-up to 2023, Virgin Galactic had been undergoing a lengthy “enhancement” process to upgrade its flight hardware. The work came after several missteps in earlier test flights.

The company plans to continue using its VSS Unity space plane and VMS Eve mothership until at least 2026, then debut an updated line of hardware referred to as “Delta ships.”

Those crafts are expected to cost less to produce and be capable of conducting more flights in less time, Colglazier added.

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