Virgin Galactic notches milestone flight

Hourlong mission included one paying customer and two lucky winners

Virgin Galactic completed its first tourism flight, and second commercial flight, to the edge of space Thursday morning.

The company’s VSS Unity spaceplane carried three tourists and three crew members to an altitude of 88.5 kilometers, past the 80-kilometer threshold defined as the start of space by FAA and NASA, but short of the Kármán line of 100 kilometers recognized by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

The tourists were Anastatia Mayers, 18; her mother, Keisha Schahaff, 46; and Jon Goodwin, 80, of the United Kingdom.

Mayers and Schahaff, both of Antigua, won their tickets to board the Virgin Galactic flight in a drawing run by Colorado nonprofit Space for Humanity, which has a goal to send 10,000 people to space in the next 10 years. Goodwin, who competed in the 1972 Olympics as a canoeist, paid $250,000 for his ticket in 2005 when Virgin Galactic first began selling them.

The crew members were mission commander Frederick “CJ” Sturckow, pilot Kelly Latimer and Beth Moses, the company’s chief astronaut instructor.

Previous Virgin Galactic flights had carried test pilots, company founder Richard Branson, company employees and, most recently, two Italian Air Force officers and an aerospace engineer from the National Research Council of Italy.

Thursday’s mission began when the VMS Eve carrier aircraft took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, with Unity cradled under its wing between its twin fuselages. Eve released Unity from the pylon on the wing at 44,300 feet, and the smaller craft fired a hybrid rocket engine (solid propellant and liquid nitrous oxide) to reach the maximum altitude. After the crew and passengers experienced weightlessness for a few minutes, Unity descended and landed back at the spaceport one hour after takeoff.

Virgin Galactic’s livestream of the event, broadcast from the takeoff point at Spaceport America, included video from the exterior and interior of Unity showing the passengers unbuckle safety harnesses and float through the air upon reaching apogee.

“They’re all going to the window and taking in this just absolutely incredible view of Earth, the planet where all of their experiences, everything they’ve ever known, is down below,” said Sirisha Bandla, one of the livestream narrators. She was a passenger on the 2021 flight with Branson and is Virgin’s vice president of government affairs and research operations.

Rachel Lyons, executive director of Space for Humanity and another narrator, described Mayers and Schahaff as an inspiration to others: “Antiguans, Caribbeans, university students, women — the boundaries they’re breaking, it’s just absolutely mind blowing,” Lyons said.

Virgin Galactic said in a press release before the flight that the diversity of the crew furthered the company’s “mission of broadening access to space.”

Goodwin is believed to be the second person with Parkinson’s disease to go to space, according to Virgin Galactic. In a video interview posted online by the company, Goodwin said he was diagnosed with the disease nine years after buying his ticket.

Galactic 02 passenger Anastatia Mayers looks out of the window of the VSS Unity spacecraft. She was one of three passengers aboard Virgin Galactic's second commercial flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic notches milestone flight