Space tourists, from left, Anastasia Mayers, Jon Goodwin and Keisha Schahaff pose for photos before boarding their Virgin Galactic flight at Spaceport America, near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, on Thursday, August 10. Virgin Galactic was taking its first space tourists on a long-delayed rocket ship ride. (AP Photo/Andrés Leighton)
ST. JOHN’S, Antigua--Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, the reusable rocket-powered space plane carrying the company’s first crew of tourists to space, successfully launched and landed on Thursday.
The mission, known as Galactic 02, took off shortly after 11:00am ET from Spaceport America in New Mexico.
Aboard the spacecraft were six individuals total – the space plane’s commander and former NASA astronaut C.J. Sturckow, the pilot Kelly Latimer as well as Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor, who trained the crew before to the flight.
The spacecraft also carried three private passengers, including health and wellness coach Keisha Schahaff and her 18-year-old daughter, Anastasia Mayers, both from Antigua.
According to Space.com, Schahaff won her seat aboard the Galactic 02 as part of a fundraising competition by Space for Humanity, a non-profit organisation seeking to democratise space travel. Mayers is studying philosophy and physics at Aberdeen University in Scotland. Together, Schahaff and Mayers are the first mother-daughter duo to venture to space together.
“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. The fact that I am here, the first to travel to space from Antigua, shows that space really is becoming more accessible,” Schahaff said in a statement last month.
The mission also marks the most women flown in a single mission to space.
Aboard the flight was also the former Olympian Jon Goodwin, who participated in the 1972 Olympics in Munich as a canoeist. At 80 years old, Goodwin was the second passenger with Parkinson’s disease and the first Olympian to embark on a trip to space.
“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2014, I was determined not to let it stand in the way of living life to the fullest. 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,” Goodwin said.
Galactic 02 is a suborbital flight. However, despite VSS Unity not reaching orbit, the trajectory allows passengers to experience several minutes of weightlessness at an altitude high enough for them to see the Earth’s curvature, Space.com explains.
Following lift-off, Virgin Galactic’s carrier plane VMS Eve transported VSS Unity to an altitude of about 44,300 feet. Eve then dropped Unity, which then fired its own rocket motor and ascended to suborbital space. Passengers aboard experienced approximately three times the force of gravity (3Gs).
Live footage inside the spacecraft showed the passengers unstrapping themselves from their seats and peering out down to earth through the windows as they floated throughout the spacecraft.
In a press conference after the flight, Schahaff recounted her experience, saying: “Looking at Earth was the most amazing … It was so comfortable. It really was the best ride ever. I would love to do this again.”
“This experience has given me this beautiful feeling that if I can do this, I can do anything,” she added.
Mayers, who is the second-youngest person to go to space, said: “I was shocked at the things that you feel. 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 and I’m still starstruck.”
To Goodwin, the experience was far more dramatic than he expected.
“The pure acceleration, Mach 3 [2,301 miles per hour, 3,378 feet per second – Ed.] in eight and a half seconds was completely surreal. The re-entry was a lot more dramatic than I imagined it would be. In fact, I would have said it was out of control if I didn’t know anything different,” he said.
“It was a completely surreal experience. But the most impressive thing was looking at Earth from Space. The pure clarity was very moving, quite surreal. It was without a doubt the most exciting day of my life,” he added.
In a statement released following the flight, Sturckow said: “It is a surreal and humbling experience to have flown Unity today. The wonder and excitement of spaceflight never loses its magic.”
Latimer echoed similar sentiments, saying: “In my entire career, from the Air Force Academy to being a test pilot for NASA, nothing tops what I have just experienced at the controls of VSS Unity. Going to space today fulfilled an ambition I’ve had since I was a child.”
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson also hailed the flight, tweeting: “Today [Thursday] we flew three incredible private passengers to space: Keisha Schahaff, Anastasia Mayers and Jon Goodwin. Congratulations Virgin Galactic commercial astronauts 011, 012 and 013 – welcome to the club!”
Despite Galactic 02 being Virgin Galactic’s second commercial spaceflight mission, it is the first flight to carry private customers. In June, Galactic 01 carried three crew members from the Italian air force and the National Research Council of Italy.
In July 2021, Branson travelled to space and back aboard the VSS Unity, a mission that marked the billionaire’s entry into the new era of space tourism helmed by other billionaires, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.
According to Virgin Galactic, the company has already booked a backlog of about 800 customers. Tickets have ranged from US $250,000 to $450,000.
Galactic 03, the company’s third commercial spaceflight, is planned for September. ~ The Guardian ~