Virgin Galactic’s first commercial space flight has been completed, with three passengers.
Two of the three passengers were related to each other: mother and daughter pair, Keisha Schahaff, 46, and, Ana Mayers, 18, are from Antigua. Schahaff is a wellness coach, and Mayers a philosophy and physics student. They won their tickets in a raffle to raise funds for Space for Humanity, a non-profit group that aims to make space accessible to ordinary citizens.
The third passenger was the first customer on a list of 800 who have so far purchased a Virgin Galactic trip. Jon Goodwin, 80, is a former Olympic canoeist from Newcastle-under-Lyme, UK. He competed in C-2 slalom events at the Munich Games in the 1970s.
Goodwin was an early adopter, buying his ticket to space back in 2005, for $250,000 (then €280,000). When he was later diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease he believed it would mean the end of his space dream. Now he says he is “hoping that I instil in other people around the world, as well as people with Parkinson’s, that it doesn’t stop you doing things that’s out of the normal if you’ve got some illness.”
The most impressive thing was looking at Earth from space – the pure clarity was very moving.Jon Goodwin, a former Olympic canoeist
2. Flight facts
The mission took off from New Mexico’s Spaceport America on 10 August 2023 at 08:30 local time. It reached an altitude of 44,300 feet (13,500 metres) at release and hit a top speed of Mach 3 during the flight.
Less than an hour after launch, the Unity rocket made its planned separation from mothership VMS Eve. Not long after, the passengers were cleared to undo their seatbelts and float in zero gravity, making the most of views of Earth from the craft’s maximum altitude of around 88km up (55 miles).
“Looking at Earth was the most amazing” Schahaff, who had dreamed of going to space since childhood, remarked. As a Caribbean citizen, she too had assumed her dream would never come true. Caribbean nations have to date largely played a supporting role in the space race.
3. Marking milestones
Virgin Galactic’s founder, Sir Richard Branson, who completed his own such trip two years ago, celebrated in typically emotive style in Schahaff’s Antigua, weeping and writing on social media:
“Today we flew three incredible private passengers to space: Keisha Schahaff, Anastatia Mayers and Jon Goodwin,” he announced. He went on: “Congratulations Virgin Galactic commercial astronauts 011, 012 and 013 – welcome to the club!”
Branson’s space odyssey has been marked by competition with other billionaire space entrepreneurs, with each taking various firsts in the race. Unsurprisingly then, Virgin Galactic has made much of the milestones marked by the flight:
- First mother-daughter space duo
- Sixth and seventh Black women to travel to space
- Youngest person to travel to space
- First Olympian in space
- Second person with Parkinson’s to travel to space
- Third oldest person to travel to space
4. Transformational but in what way?
Michael Colglazier, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, has been at pains to highlight how the company aims to “create life-changing transformational journeys by enabling people to experience the wonder of space.” On LinkedIn, he has spun this as “enabling, amplifying, and sharing a physically changed perspective of our planet from space [that] will open the door to creating, sharing, and supporting a changed perspective to create good back here on Earth.”
Critics meanwhile point out that it is mainly the super-rich who have access to space experiences, and that each flight impacts billions of non-space-going people with huge carbon and other pollutant emissions.
Professor Eloise Marais speaking to the Guardian has noted: “For one long-haul plane flight it’s one to three tons of carbon dioxide [per passenger].” Meanwhile, one rocket launch means 200-300 tonnes of carbon dioxide split between, in this case, just three passengers.