Virgin Galactic rocketed to the edge of space with its first tourists Thursday, including a former British Olympian who bought his ticket 18 years ago and a mother-daughter duo from the Caribbean.
The space plane glided back to a runway landing at Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert, after a brief flight that gave passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.
Tourists aboard the Virgin Galactic jet look out the window as they experience zero gravity (Virgin Galactic)
This first private customer flight had been delayed for years; its success means Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic can now start offering monthly rides, joining Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX in the space tourism business.
"That was by far the most awesome thing I’ve ever done in my life," passenger Jon Goodwin told the crowd after his flight.
Goodwin, who was among the first to buy a ticket in 2005, said he had faith that he would someday make the trip. The 80-year-old athlete — he competed in canoeing in the 1972 Olympics — has Parkinson's disease and wants to be an inspiration to others.
Ticket prices were $200,000 when Goodwin signed up. The cost is now $450,000.
He was joined on the flight by sweepstakes winner Keisha Schahaff, 46, a health coach from Antigua, and her daughter, Anastatia Mayers, 18, a student at Scotland's University of Aberdeen. They high-fived and pumped their fists as the spaceport crowd cheered their return.
"A childhood dream has come true," Schahaff said. Added her daughter: "I have no words. The only thought I had the whole time was ‘Wow!’ "
With the company's astronaut trainer and one of the two pilots, it marked the first time women outnumbered men on a spaceflight, four to two.
A view from the Virgin Galactic rocket that brought tourists to the edge of space on August 10, 2023 (Virgin Galactic)
Cheers erupted from families and friends watching below when the craft’s rocket motor fired after it was released from the twin-fuselage aircraft that had carried it aloft. The rocket ship’s portion of the flight lasted about 15 minutes and it reached 55 miles (88 kilometers) high.
It was Virgin Galactic's seventh trip to space since 2018, but the first with a ticket-holder. Branson, the company's founder, hopped on board for the first full-size crew ride in 2021. Italian military and government researchers soared in June on the first commercial flight. About 800 people are currently on Virgin Galactic’s waiting list, according to the company.
In contrast to Virgin Galactic’s plane-launched rocket ship, the capsules used by SpaceX and Blue Origin are fully automated and parachute back down.
Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin aims for the fringes of space, quick ups-and-downs from West Texas. Blue Origin has launched 31 people so far, but flights are on hold following a rocket crash last fall. The capsule, carrying experiments but no passengers, landed intact.
A Virgin Galactic rocket flies tourists to edge of space in a first for the company on August 10, 2023 (Virgin Galactic)
SpaceX is the only private company flying customers all the way to orbit, charging a much heftier price, too: tens of millions of dollars per seat. It’s already flown three private crews. NASA is its biggest customer, relying on SpaceX to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station. since 2020.
People have been taking on adventure travel for decades, the risks underscored by the recent implosion of the Titan submersible that killed five passengers on their way down to view the Titanic wreckage. Virgin Galactic suffered its own casualty in 2014 when its rocket plane broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot. Yet space tourists are still lining up, ever since the first one rocketed into orbit in 2001 with the Russians.
Branson, who lives in the British Virgin Islands, watched Thursday's flight from a party in Antigua. He was joined by the country's prime minister, as well as Schahaff's mother and other relatives.
"Welcome to the club," he told the new spacefliers via X, formerly Twitter.
Several months ago, Branson held a virtual lottery to establish a pecking order for the company's first 50 customers — dubbed the Founding Astronauts. Virgin Galactic said the group agreed Goodwin would go first, given his age and his Parkinson’s.