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Virgin Galactic rockets its 1st tourists to the edge of space

Virgin Galactic rocketed to the edge of space with its first tourists on Thursday, including a former British Olympian who bought his ticket 18 years ago and a mother-daughter duo from the Caribbean.

Company plans to offer monthly trips to aspiring space tourists

Virgin Galactic rocketed to the edge of space with its first tourists on Thursday, including a former British Olympian who bought his ticket 18 years ago and a mother-daughter duo from the Caribbean.

The space plane glided back to a runway landing at Spaceport America, in the New Mexico desert, after a brief flight that gave passengers a few minutes of weightlessness.

Cheers erupted from families and friends watching from below when the craft's rocket motor fired after it was released from the plane that had carried it aloft. The rocket ship reached a height of about 88 kilometres.

Richard Branson's company expects to begin offering monthly trips to customers on its winged space plane, joining Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX in the space tourism business.

Prior to launch, Virgin Galactic passenger Jon Goodwin, who was among the first to buy a ticket in 2005, said he had faith that he would someday make the trip. The 80-year-old British Olympian — who competed in canoeing in 1972 — has Parkinson's disease and wants to be an inspiration to others.

Three people hold flags outside an aircraft.

"That was by far the most awesome thing I've ever done in my life," he told the crowd after his flight.

Goodwin has said he paid $200,000 US for his ticket. The cost is now $450,000.

Company's 7th trip to space since 2018

Goodwin was joined by sweepstakes winner Keisha Schahaff, 46, a health coach from Antigua, and her daughter, Anastatia Mayers, 18, a student at Scotland's University of Aberdeen.

"A childhood dream has come true," Schahaff said. Added her daughter: "I have no words. The only thought I had the whole time was, 'Wow!'"

Also aboard the plane-launched craft, which glides to a space shuttle-like landing: two pilots and the company's astronaut trainer.

It was Virgin Galactic's seventh trip to space since 2018, but the first with a ticket-holder.

Branson, the company's founder, hopped on board for the first full-size crew ride in 2021. Italian military and government researchers soared in June on the first commercial flight.

"Welcome to the club," he told the new space-flyers via X, formerly known as Twitter.

About 800 people are currently on Virgin Galactic's waiting list, according to the company.

Virgin Galactic's rocket ship launches from the belly of an airplane, not from the ground, and requires two pilots in the cockpit. Once the mothership reaches a height of about 15 kilometres, the space plane is released and fires its rocket motor to make the final push. Passengers can unstrap from their seats, float around the cabin for a few minutes and take in sweeping views of Earth, before the space plane glides back home and lands on a runway.

Like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin aims for the fringes of space, launching quick ups-and-downs from west Texas. Blue Origin has launched 31 people so far, but flights are on hold following a rocket crash last fall. The capsule, carrying experiments but no passengers, landed intact.

SpaceX is the only private company flying customers all the way to orbit, charging a much heftier price: tens of millions of dollars per seat. It's already flown three private crews. NASA is its biggest customer, relying on SpaceX to ferry its astronauts to and from the International Space Station since 2020.

New form of adventure travel

People have been taking on adventure travel for decades, with the risks recently underscored by the implosion of the Titan submersible that killed five passengers on their way down to view the Titanic wreckage.

Virgin Galactic suffered its own casualty in 2014 when its rocket plane broke apart during a test flight, killing one pilot. Yet space tourists are still lining up, ever since the first one rocketed into orbit in 2001 with the Russians.

Branson, who lives in the British Virgin Islands, watched Thursday's flight from a party in Antigua. He had held a virtual lottery to establish a pecking order for the company's first 50 customers — dubbed the founding astronauts. Virgin Galactic said the group agreed Goodwin would go first, given his age and his Parkinson's.

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