Virgin Galactic blasts its first tourists to edge of space

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Virgin Galactic has successfully completed its first tourism ride to the edge of space.

The carrier mothership VMS Eve took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at 08:30 a.m. local time on Thursday, carrying the rocket-powered VSS Unity aircraft.

On board Unity were 80-year-old Jon Goodwin, a former Olympic athlete from the U.K. who bought his ticket for $250,000 in 2005, when Virgin Galactic was still in the early stages of developing the ride. Since then, Goodwin has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, though he said before the flight that he was “determined not to let it stand in the way of living life to the fullest.”

Also on board were Antiguan Keisha Schahaff, who won a pair of tickets in a raffle organized by Virgin Galactic. As her companion for the experience of a lifetime, Schahaff picked her daughter Anastatia Mayers, a philosophy and physics student in Scotland. The pair have become the first mother and daughter to travel to the edge of space together, and also the first people from the Caribbean to take such a trip.

Live-streamed footage (top) showed the moment Unity fired up its rocket engine just after Eve released the aircraft at around 45,000 feet.

It then roared to an altitude of about 290,400 feet (55 miles/88.5 kilometers), about 7 miles short of the Kármán line, the spot generally regarded as where space begins.

The passengers were able to enjoy amazing views of Earth while at the same time experiencing a few moments of weightlessness inside the cabin before gliding back to base in an experience that lasted around 90 minutes.

Back on terra firma, Schahaff told reporters: “Looking at Earth was the most amazing. It was so comfortable. It really was the best ride ever. I would love to do this again. This experience has given me this beautiful feeling that if I can do this, I can do anything.”

Mayers said she was “shocked at the things that you feel. You are so much more connected to everything than you would expect to be. You felt like a part of the team, a part of the ship, a part of the universe, a part of Earth. It was incredible and I’m still starstruck.”

Goodwin found the ride even more thrilling than he expected, saying: “The pure acceleration, Mach 3 in 8.5 seconds, was completely surreal. The reentry was a lot more dramatic than I imagined it would be … The most impressive thing was looking at Earth from space. The pure clarity was very moving, quite surreal. It was without a doubt the most exciting day of my life.”

While this was Virgin Galactic’s second commercial flight following one in June that carried three crew members from the Italian Air Force and the National Research Council of Italy, Thursday’s outing was the first one to carry private customers.

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