The first Olympian. The first mother-daughter duo. The first Caribbean women. The second person with Parkinson’s disease.
These are a few of the superlatives for the crew aboard Galactic 02, the first space tourism flight for billionaire business mogul Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The mission, the company’s seventh spaceflight overall and its fourth with humans on board, launched Thursday morning and carried three paying customers and a crew more than 50 miles to the edge of the cosmos.
Among the passengers are 80-year-old Brit Jon Goodwin and mother-daughter duo Keisha Schahaff and Anastasia Mayers from Antigua and Barbuda. Unlike Virgin Galactic’s Galactic 01 research mission, which took three Italian researchers to orbit to conduct zero-gravity experiments in June, Galactic 02 was the firm’s first private astronaut mission. In other words, it was just for fun.
At around 10:45 a.m. EDT, the company’s VSS Unity spaceship, strapped beneath mothership VMS Eve, took off from the runway at Spaceport America in New Mexico. The company dubbed it a “perfect launch” as the tandem climbed to about 44,500 feet in altitude. Branson, accompanied by Schahaff and Mayers’ friends and family, watched on from Antigua.
After reaching a designated launch point, Unity split off from Eve at 11:22 a.m. EDT, igniting its booster and climbing at three times the speed of sound. It eventually reached its apex at the Kármán Line, nearly 55 miles above the Earth and generally considered the edge of the atmosphere. That’s high enough to earn astronaut wings.
Once there, the crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness as Unity’s tail booms rotated the capsule for reentry, pointing the windows downward toward Earth in a process Virgin Galactic calls “feathering.” Finally, Unity reentered the atmosphere and glided on its wings to the runway at 11:37 a.m. EDT.
From launch to landing, the mission lasted less than an hour.
Meet the Crew
Though Virgin Galactic caters primarily to the ultra-rich—seats are currently going for a hefty $450,000—the company has emphasized democratizing access to space. With that goal in mind, Galactic 02 will feature a handful of firsts (and one second).
Goodwin, who purchased his ticket for $200,000 in 2008 and is one of the company’s earliest ticket holders, is a former Olympic slalom canoeist who competed in the 1972 Munich Games. An adventurer, he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and competed in the world’s longest canoe race in the Arctic Circle.
Goodwin on Thursday became the first Olympian to reach space as well as the second person with Parkinson’s disease, an achievement he celebrated.
“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,” he said of the superlative.
Goodwin was joined by Schahaff, a health and wellness coach and entrepreneur, and her daughter Mayers, a philosophy and physics student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. The duo won their seats in a draw that raised $1.7 million for nonprofit Space for Humanity, which raises money to send citizen astronauts into space.
“When I was two years old, just looking up to the skies, I thought, ‘How can I get there?’” Schahaff said. “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 and Mayers became the first Caribbean women and the first mother-daughter duo to reach orbit. And Mayers, who wants to become an astrobiologist, is now the second-youngest person with that honor.
“This flight highlights two of Virgin Galactic’s core aspirations—increasing access to space and inspiring people around the world,” said Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic. “Each of these astronauts are role models and beacons of inspiration in their communities. Watching Keisha, Ana and Jon embark on this transformative experience helps demonstrate that space is now opening to a broader and more diverse population across the globe.”
The passengers were accompanied by Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s lead astronaut instructor who also flew on Galactic 01. Moses carried out all training and preparation for Thursday’s mission.
Unity was piloted by CJ Sturckow and Kelly Latimer, the first female pilot of a commercial spaceship. Nicola Pecile and Mike Masucci commanded the Eve mothership.
Notably, Galactic 02 was a majority female mission, a rarity in space travel. Of the hundreds of astronauts to reach orbit, only around 73 of them have been women.
The Space Race
Virgin Galactic’s flights to the final frontier place it in the thick of the space tourism industry, a new frontier in business. Its main competitors are Blue Origin and SpaceX, respectively owned by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
Following the success of Galactic 02, Virgin Galactic is expected to launch monthly commercial research and private astronaut missions. So far, it’s sold 800 seats at prices ranging from $200,000 (when Goodwin bought his ticket) to $450,000 (the going price since 2020).
Branson believes the company’s fleet will one day be large enough to support 400 flights per year. It will continue to deploy Unity and Eve through at least 2026, the year it hopes to introduce a new line of “Delta class” spaceships. The first six-passenger spacecraft will be assembled in 2025 and is expected to reduce production costs while enabling higher frequency flights.
With Galactic 02 in the books, Virgin Galactic is picking up momentum while Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Starship remain grounded. Bezos expects New Shepard, which completed a handful of commercial missions before Virgin Galactic, to return to flight this year. Starship, meanwhile, may remain earthbound for the foreseeable future as the FAA investigation into its April explosion stalls.
The success or failure of the three companies is likely to dictate the next decade of space tourism. Buoyed by billionaire backers, the trio is positioned to conduct more launches than small startups, which should precipitate new regulations as the industry takes shape.
In fact, the FAA in July established a rulemaking committee to examine future regulations around commercial spaceflight passenger safety. The committee already features 25 members, including Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, as well as Boeing.
More likely than not, that’s a sign of things to come. And given the recent scrutiny around expensive, experimental adventure tourism, enhanced safety procedures may be necessary to keep commercial spaceflight viable.