Updated 8:15 p.m. with comments from post-flight briefing.
LOGAN, Utah — Virgin Galactic took its first private astronaut customers on a suborbital spaceflight Aug. 10, nearly two decades after it started selling tickets.
Virgin’s VSS Unity spaceplane, attached to its VMS Eve mothership aircraft, took off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at approximately 10:20 a.m. Eastern. Unity was released from Eve at 11:17 a.m. Eastern and fired its hybrid rocket motor.
The vehicle reached a peak altitude of about 88.5 kilometers before gliding back to the spaceport, landing at 11:32 a.m. Eastern. The flight appeared to go as expected.
“Today Virgin Galactic took another historic leap forward by flying our first private astronaut mission and demonstrating how our spaceflights will broaden access to space,” Michael Colglazier, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, said in a post-flight statement.
The Galactic 02 mission was the second commercial spaceflight for Virgin Galactic after the Galactic 01 mission June 29. That was a research flight for the Italian Air Force that carried three people from the Italian Air Force and Italy’s National Research Council, conducting more than a dozen instruments.
Galactic 02 was the first flight to carry space tourists, who make up the largest part of the company’s customer base. The company started selling tickets in 2005 for flights on the SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane at an initial price of $200,000. That has increased to $450,000 today.
One of the people on Galactic 02, Jon Goodwin, was among the first people to buy a ticket. Goodwin, now 80, represented Great Britain in the 1972 Summer Olympics and spent the following decades as an adventurer. He continued that even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 2014.
The other two customers on the right are a mother and daughter, Keisha Schahaff and Anastatia Mayers, from Antigua and Barbuda. Schahaff won a contest run by the nonprofit organization Space For Humanity in 2021 for two seats on an early commercial SpaceShipTwo flight, and selected her daughter, Mayers, to accompany her.
“Jon, Keisha and Ana each embody our fundamental belief that space is for everyone, and we are proud that today’s flight has inspired people and communities around the world,” Colglazier said in the statement.
Goodwin, who noted at a post-flight briefing that he puchased his ticket in September 2005, said the flight was worth the nearly 18-year wait. “It was far more dramatic that I might have imagined it would be,” he said. “Without a doubt the most exciting day of my life.”
Schahaff mentioned the support she and her daughter got from their country, as the first Caribbean women to go to space. “It’s such a beautiful feeling knowing that our nation is giving such great support,” she said.
The fourth person in the cabin was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, making her fourth suborbital spaceflight. Unity was commanded by CJ Sturckow with Kelly Latimer as pilot. Sturckow was on his fourth SpaceShipTwo flight after four space shuttle flights as a NASA astronaut, while Latimer was on her first spaceflight.
Virgin Galactic executives said they expected to fly Unity on roughly a monthly basis for the foreseeable future. The company has a backlog of roughly 800 customers including some, like Goodwin, who signed up as far back as the mid-2000s.
Those flights, though, will generate little revenue for Virgin Galactic, which forecasted earlier this month just $1 million in revenue in the current quarter and again in the fourth quarter of this year. That, company executives said, is linked to the lower ticket prices its early customers paid. The company is also, like on Galactic 02, flying only three customers with an employee filling the fourth seat.
“When we look at the capacity of Unity and the ticket prices that we’re flying these days, you would expect to see for the near term about $600,000 per flight,” Colgazier said in an Aug. 1 earnings call. He said the company expects to add a fourth paying customer to Unity flights “as we move into 2024,” increasing the per-flight revenue to about $800,000.
Virgin Galactic said its next flight, Galactic 03, is scheduled for September as it continues a monthly flight cadence.