Virgin Galactic successfully flew its first space tourists aboard the VSS Unity spaceplane. The 10 August mission was the company’s second commercial flight, and the first to carry paying customers instead of trained astronauts.
Virgin Galactic’s launch system has two parts: a huge airplane called VMS Eve and the smaller spaceplane VSS Unity. Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico with Unity tucked underneath it, releasing the spaceplane at an altitude of around 13.5 kilometres.
Then, Unity’s engine ignited and the craft flew to a bit over 80 kilometres – an altitude that is considered the edge of space by the US government, although some scientists consider 100 kilometres the lower boundary of space. The crew got a few minutes of weightlessness before their return to Earth.
— Virgin Galactic (@virgingalactic) August 10, 2023
Two of the passengers, mother-daughter pair Keisha Schahaff and Anastatia Mayers from Antigua and Barbuda, won their seats in a charity raffle. The third was Jon Goodwin, a former Olympic canoeist from the UK, who bought his ticket for about $250,000 in 2005 shortly after Virgin Galactic was founded. As the company’s first launch to space was delayed – it finally happened in 2018 – Goodwin held onto his ticket, and was finally able to cash it in.
The other crew members on the flight, which was named Galactic-02, were astronaut trainer Beth Moses and two pilots, all Virgin Galactic employees. Virgin Galactic officials have previously said that this mission will kick off a regular cadence of launches, approximately one a month, so the firm’s next commercial flight could take place as soon as September.