Heralding the dawn of democratic space tourism, Virgin Galactic safely took two competition winners on a record-breaking trip to the cosmos, as well as the company’s first paying ticketholder – and 80-year-old with Parkinson’s. Jenny Southan reports

After securing a place aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceflight, competition winners Keisha Schahaff (a health coach) and her daughter Anastatia Mayers (a student) of Antigua and Barbuda, flew to the edge of space (55 miles up).

Their journey took place on August 10, 2023, as Virgin Galactic’s Galactic 02 mission spacecraft lifted off from Spaceport America, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.Virgin GalacticAt 18 years of age, Mayers is the youngest person (by two weeks) ever to go to space. Schahaff and Mayers are also the first mother and daughter and the first people from the Caribbean to make the journey into the cosmos, and only the sixth and seventh black women to travel to space.

Before take-off, Schahaff said: “When I was two years old, just looking up to the skies, I thought, ‘How can I get there?’ But, being from the Caribbean, I didn’t see how something like this would be possible. The fact that I am here, the first to travel to space from Antigua, shows that space really is becoming more accessible.

“I know I will be changed by my experience, and I hope I will be able to share that energy and inspire the people around me – in my role as a life coach, a mother, and as an ambassador for our beautiful planet.” Virgin GalacticUpon her return, Schahaff said: “Antigua went to space! A childhood dream has come true. I’ve been to space and back with my daughter. We’re making history, and this is just beautiful. The pilots, everyone, they delivered exactly what they said it would be. And if anyone was wondering, Earth is round!”Virgin GalacticMayers said: “I have no words. The only thought I had the entire time was wow, that’s how I can sum up the experience. Just wow.”

In a subsequent interview with BBC Newsbeat, she added: “It’s made me a lot more aware of the fact that we need to appreciate Earth and use this opportunity to really explore and find a connection with nature.” Of the ascent itself, she said: “It feels like you’re on like just a normal commercial flight, it was very peaceful.”

Schahaff and Mayers made the ascent with fellow crewmate, Jon Goodwin – a former 1972 Olympian who is now aged 80 and has Parkinson’s disease (neither of these factors counted against him). Goodwin was one the first people to buy a ticket when prices were US$200,000 (now they are US$450,000). Today, there are about 800 people on the waiting list.Goodwin said: “From becoming an Olympian to canoeing between the peaks of Annapurna, to winning a six day race in the Arctic Circle, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (and cycling back down), I’ve always enjoyed rising to new challenges.

“When I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2014, I was determined not to let it stand in the way of living life to the fullest. And now for me to go to space with Parkinson’s is completely magical. I hope this inspires all others facing adversity and shows them that challenges don’t have to inhibit or stop them from pursuing their dreams.”

The launch not only marked several historic space tourism milestones but also “stood as a testament to the indomitable spirit of the human race”, and Virgin Galactic’s “mission of broadening access to space”.

Upon his return, Goodwin said: “That was by far the most awesome thing I’ve ever done in my life.” He is the third-oldest person to ever go into space.Virgin GalacticIn a video for Virgin Galactic, astronaut Jamila Gilbert says: “The new space age means diversity, imagination and adventure all have a home in space. We have built a space line and now it’s time to go. This is revolutionary.”

Michael Colglazier, CEO of Virgin Galactic, says: “This flight highlights two of Virgin Galactic’s core aspirations – increasing access to space and inspiring people around the world. Each of these astronauts are role models and beacons of inspiration in their communities.

“Watching Keisha, Ana and Jon embark on this transformative experience helps demonstrate that space is now opening to a broader and more diverse population across the globe.”

Rachel Lyons, executive director for Space for Humanity, says: “Beholding Earth from the vantage point of space bestows upon astronauts an awe-inspiring perspective, referred to as The Overview Effect, that transcends boundaries and unites humanity.

“It is this transformative perspective that holds one of the keys to tackling our world’s most pressing challenges. At Space For Humanity, our purpose is to grant as many individuals as possible access to this life-altering viewpoint, not only for the betterment of our civilization’s future, but also to confront the urgent needs of our world today.

“This profound awareness underscores our collective responsibility to treat one another with greater kindness, and to safeguard and cherish our home planet— the irreplaceable cradle of our existence.”

Galactic 03, the company’s third commercial spaceflight is planned for September 2023.