Virgin Galactic is flying its first space tourists aboard the VSS Unity spaceplane. If all goes well, the 10 August mission will be 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. The plan is for Eve to take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico with Unity tucked underneath it, releasing the spaceplane at an altitude of around 15 kilometres.
Then, Unity’s engine will ignite and the craft will fly to just 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 will get a few minutes of weightlessness before their return to Earth.
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 will be 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 now he is finally able to cash it in.
The other crew members on the flight, which has been named Galactic-02, are 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 if all goes well the firm’s next commercial flight could take place as soon as September.