New Space and Tech

Virgin Galactic Sends Paying Customers to the Edge of Space on Galactic 02

By John Williams
August 10, 2023
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Virgin Galactic Sends Paying Customers to the Edge of Space on Galactic 02
Galactic 02 passengers experiencing weightlessness.
Image credit: Virgin Galactic livestream.

Three new astronauts, including the first mother-daughter team and first Olympian, gained astronaut wings today during the first private astronaut mission to space aboard Galactic 02, Virgin Galactic’s latest mission. This is the third flight to space for the space tourism company in as many months.

The flight lifted off into blue skies from Spaceport America in New Mexico and took three passengers along with Virgin Galactic’s astronaut instructor to the edge of space, where they experienced weightlessness while looking out of the many windows of the spacecraft at the curvature of the Earth below. Jon Goodwin, 80, Keisha Schahaff, 46, Anastatia Mayers, 18, and Beth Moses made up Galactic 02’s passengers.

“I was shocked at what you feel.” Mayers, now the youngest person to go to space, said at a press conference after the flight. “I was so much more connected to everything. I felt a part of team, ship, universe, the Earth. It was incredible and I’m still starstruck.”

“I’m still up there,” said Schahaff. “I’m not here yet. It’s amazing that you can go from looking at Earth and land so smoothly. So comfortable. Best ride ever.”

Goodwin, who was Virgin Galactic’s fourth customer having bought his ticket 14 years ago, said the flight was far more dramatic than imagined. “The pure acceleration. Mach 3 in 8.5 seconds was completely surreal,” he said. “Reentry was more dramatic. In fact, I would have said it was out of control if I didn’t know any different. The most impressive thing was looking at Earth from space. Pure clarity. It was very moving. Quite surreal and without a doubt the most exciting day of my life.”

Goodwin is the first Olympian (he competed in the 1972 Munich, Germany Olympic Games) and second person with Parkinson’s to travel to space. He was one of the first space tourists to buy a ticket with Virgin Galactic. Schahaff, an entrepreneur and health & wellness coach from Antigua and Barbuda, won two spaceflight seats in a sweepstakes held by the non-profit Space for Humanity. Space for Humanity was founded by Dylan Taylor, who owns SpaceRef as part of Multiverse Media.

Schahaff was joined by her daughter, Mayers, who studies philosophy and physics at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, making them the first mother-daughter duo to fly to space. Rounding out the passengers was astronaut instructor Beth Moses. She was the first woman to fly to space aboard a commercial space vehicle in 2019. This was her fourth flight to space.

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic, founded by Sir Richard Branson in 2004, sent up its first space tourist flight in June 2023. The company plans to send up the Unity space plane once a month with paying passengers.

In a press release following the flight, Virgin Galactic CEO Michael Colglazier called the mission a “historic leap forward” in broadening access to space. “Jon, Keisha and Ana each embody our fundamental belief that space is for everyone, and we are proud that today’s flight has inspired people and communities around the world. This is just the beginning, as we plan to continue flying monthly spaceflights while also developing our Delta Class production spaceships to scale our business.”

Space tourism is an important part of Virgin Galactic’s future growth. In its second quarter 2023 report, released August 1st, the company reported that cash reserves increased $106 million from the first quarter to $980 million. Virgin Galactic reported revenue of $2 million for 2023, compared to $400,000 in the second quarter of 2022. The company attributes the increase to commercial spaceflight and membership fees related to future astronauts.

Historic firsts

Other significant spaceflight “firsts” from the Galactic 02 mission include the first female astronauts from the Caribbean, most women (four) flown into space in a single mission, the first majority female spaceflight, the youngest person to go to space, the sixth and seventh Black women to go to space, second person with Parkinson’s to go to space, and the third oldest person to go to space.

“This is a most significant event for Antigua and Barbuda,” said Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation. “This is a major achievement, and we are so proud of the courage and resilience of Keisha and her daughter.”

Sirisha Bandla, Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations for Virgin Galactic helped moderate Thursday’s livestream. As viewers watched the Galactic 02 passengers unhook and weightlessly gravitate toward the windows, she recounted her own trip to space, on the Virgin Galactic Unity 22 mission in June 2022. She said that, during her flight, she couldn’t take her eyes away from the windows herself. “Seeing Earth moving away and going into space was an incredible feeling,” she said.

At its highest point, or apogee, Unity 1 reached 290,000 feet, or about 88.5 km. The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale defines space as more than 100 kilometers (or 62 miles) above sea level. By contrast, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifies commercial astronauts who travel above an altitude of 50 miles (about 80 km), so whether or not the crew reached space is a matter of semantics.

Virgin Galactic has about 800 customers, many who paid between $200,000 and $250,000 over a decade ago for a flight to space. About two years ago, the company reopened ticket sales with pricing beginning at $450,000 per seat.

John Williams

John is a Colorado-based science writer, astrophotographer, science outreach enthusiast, and creative technologist. He is the author of award-winning Hubble Star Cards and a few children's books.