To the sound of thunderous cheers that erupted from families and friends who watched the feat from the ground below, Virgin Galactic’s rocket motor fired after it was released from the twin-fuselage aircraft that carried it aloft from its launch site at Spaceport America in the New Mexico desert.
The rocket’s leg of the journey lasted approximately 15 minutes as it rose 88 kilometres high in the sky. Galactic 02 speeded its way to the edge of space with its first tourists on board on Thursday (August 10, 2023)—a former British Olympian and octogenarian Parkinson’s patient, Jon Goodwin, who had booked his flight in 2005, and a mother-daughter duo from the Caribbean, Keisha Schahaff and Anastatia Mayers, who won seats through a charity fundraising drawing by non-profit Space for Humanity. Schahaff and Mayers are the first mother-daughter duo that has travelled to space together. When Goodwin signed up, ticket prices had ranged between $200,000 and $250,000. The cost is now $450,000.
As the plane glided back to a runway strip at Spaceport America after a brief, but refreshing, 90-minute sojourn, the passengers felt exhilarated having experienced a few moments of weightlessness. The flight takes its passengers past an altitude which the US recognizes to be the boundary of space—80 kilometres (approximately 262,000 feet) above sea level. There is no definite altitude above Earth where outer space starts. At an altitude of 100 kilometres above sea level, the Kármán line is conventionally considered the beginning of outer space—both for aerospace record-keeping and space treaty purposes.
Goodwin, 80, a British retired slalom canoeist who had competed in the C-2 slalom event at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, after later being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease thought that luck had run out on him. Since then he has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro and cycled back down.
“This is, by far, the most awesome thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Associated Press quoted Goodwin as saying. In 2014, Goodwin was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But he stood unshakeable in his resolve not to let that stand in the way of living a full life. “And now, for me to go to space with Parkinson’s is completely magical,” The Guardian quoted him as having said in a news release. He hoped his example would inspire everyone else who faces adversity and demonstrate to them that challenges in life cannot deter them from chasing their dreams.
Goodwin co-passengers were Schahaff, 46, an Antiguan health coach, and her daughter, Anastatia Mayers, 18, who studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. They high-fived to the assembled crowd who had come to receive them and cheer their return.
For Schahaff, it was childhood dream come true. She had carried a handful of Antiguan sand up into space with her. Her daughter added, “Words fail me. My only thought the whole time was ‘Wow!’ ”
This first flight with private passengers was delayed for many years. With this feather in his cap, company founder Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic can now start offering monthly space tourism rides, in league with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Branson had, himself, taken the first crew ride in 2021; Italian military and government researchers took the first commercial flight in June.
Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin & SpaceX
The success of this first private customer flight that had been hanging fire for many years means Virgin Galactic can now start throwing open bookings for its monthly rides, joining the space tourism race with SpaceX and Blue Origin.
According to Virgin Galactic, about 800 people are currently on its waiting list. Blue Origin has launched 31 people so far, but further flights have been put on hold after a rocket without crew crashed last autumn. The capsule, carrying experiments, landed intact.
SpaceX, is the only private company flying customers all the way to orbit, but its charges are much higher—tens of millions of dollars per seat. It has flown three private crews by now and ferries to and fro the International Space Station astronauts from NASA, which is its biggest customer.
People have been embarking on adventure travel for decades. The risks were highlighted recently when the Titan submersible imploded on June 18, 2023, while transporting tourists to view the wreckage of the Titanic. Virgin Galactic, itself, landed in a misadventure when its rocket plane blew up during a test flight in 2014, killing a pilot. Yet, space tourists are still bee-lining for a taste of that irresistible feeling of weightlessness in space and the magical views of Earth from far, far above.
–The author of this article is a Defence, Aerospace & Political analyst based in Bengaluru. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda