Space Flight

Virgin Galactic Flies Its First Privately Funded Space Tourists

Virgin Galactic sent its first privately funded adventurers — and its first space sweepstakes winners — past the 50-mile space boundary today.

The tourists on the suborbital space trip known as Galactic 02 included Keisha Schahaff, who won two tickets in an online contest organized by the Omaze charity sweepstakes platform and a nonprofit group called Space for Humanity in 2021. She and her daughter, Anastatia Mayers, became the first mother-and-daughter duo to share a spaceflight, and the first spacefliers from the Caribbean island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

“I kind of feel like I was born in this life for this,” Schahaff, a wellness coach, told NBC’s “Today” show. Her daughter is a college student who aims to become an astrobiologist.

Jon Goodwin — an 80-year-old British adventurer who competed as a canoeist in the 1972 Olympics — also broke barriers on today’s Galactic 02 flight. In 2005, he was one of the first customers to reserve a spot with Virgin Galactic, back when the price was $200,000. Then, almost a decade ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Today he became only the second person with Parkinson’s to take a space trip. (The first was NASA shuttle astronaut Rich Clifford.)

“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. They’re not going to accept me any longer,'” Goodwin said before the flight. “The fact that I am now one of three [on] the first commercial trip to go into space, with suffering with Parkinson’s for nine years, just shows you this attitude of ‘Space for All’ is a wonderful attitude.”

Rounding out the crew were Virgin Galactic pilots C.J. Sturckow and Kelly Latimer, and chief astronaut instructor Beth Moses. This was the first spaceflight for Latimer.

Today’s flight profile followed the routine that was set during Virgin Galactic’s test flights, plus a research mission known as Galactic 01 that was flown for the Italian Air Force in June.

The SpaceShipTwo rocket plane known as VSS Unity was slung underneath its twin-fuselage carrier airplane, VMS Eve, for takeoff from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 8:30 a.m. MT (14:30 UTC). About 47 minutes later, Unity was released from Eve at an altitude of 44,300 feet and fired up its rocket motor for the climb to a maximum height of a little more than 290,000 feet (55 miles, or 88.4 kilometers).

That altitude exceeded the 50-mile space boundary as defined by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration — but stayed below the internationally recognized 100-kilometer (62-mile) space boundary known as the Karman Line.

At the top of the ride, the riders in Unity’s passenger cabin unstrapped themselves from their seats and experienced a few minutes of weightlessness. They also marveled at views of a curving Earth beneath the black sky of space. They returned to their seats for the high-G descent — and then unfurled an Antiguan flag to celebrate their milestone.

Virgin Galactic’s webcast showed a crowd of well-wishers on Antigua cheering on the spacefliers — and one of those well-wishers was the company’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson.

Unity glided to a landing back at Spaceport America a little bit after 9:30 a.m. MT (15:30 UTC). The carrier aircraft, piloted by Nicola Pecile and Mike Masucci, touched down minutes later.

Afterward, Goodwin said the experience was “far more dramatic than I imagined it might be.”

“It was, without a doubt, the most exciting day of my life,” he said.

Schahaff said she wasn’t yet ready to come down to Earth. “I’m still up there,” she said. “I’m not here yet.”

Her daughter sounded as if she had experienced what astronauts call the Overview Effect. “I was shocked at the things that you feel,” Mayers said. “You are so much more connected to everything than you would expect to be. You felt like a part of the team, a part of the ship, a part of the universe, a part of Earth. It was incredible.”

Although this was the first Virgin Galactic mission to carry crew members who could be considered space tourists, the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship set an earlier precedent. That flight carried an 18-year-old Dutch student named Oliver Daemen, whose family paid an undisclosed fare for the trip. Mayers is also 18, and is now the youngest woman to take a suborbital spaceflight.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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