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Virgin Galactic's private astronaut mission Galactic 02, at Spaceport America in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Virgin Galactic launched its first tourist passengers into the weightlessness of space Thursday, the culmination of a nearly two-decade commercial pursuit, the company said.

The three passengers - Jon Goodwin, Keisha Schahaff, and her teenage daughter Anastatia Mayers - floated gravity-free through the Virgin spacecraft about 45 minutes after taking off.

"They are officially astronauts. Welcome to space," said Virgin Galactic announcer Sirisha Bandla as the spacecraft pushed above 80 kilometers (50 miles) in altitude, the level marking the edge of space where the pull of gravity is minimal.

Live video showed the three admiring views of the Earth below and further into space through the windows.

Virgin Galactic's spaceflights involve a giant, twin-fuselage carrier aircraft that takes off from a runway, gains altitude, then drops a rocket-powered spaceplane that soars into space.

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After a few minutes in space, the craft began descending and safely landed in the US state of New Mexico, at the same runway they took off from.

Goodwin, 80, an adventurer who competed in the 1972 Olympic games as a canoeist for Britain, became Virgin Galactic's first paying space tourist who won their tickets in a charity sweepstakes.

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Anastatia Mayers (front L), 18, Jon Goodwin (back R), 80, and Chief Astronaut Instructor Beth Moses (front R) looking out of windows while in Space. Image Credit: AFP

He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2014 and will be the second person with the condition to travel to space.

Schahaff is a 46-year-old health coach from Antigua and Barbuda, while her daughter Mayers, 18, is a student at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, studying philosophy and physics.

They won their tickets in a sweepstakes tickets that raised $1.7 million for the non-profit Space for Humanity, which aims to widen space access.

Branson vs Bezos

Thursday's long-awaited flight was the culmination of a nearly two-decade-old promise by British billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, to bring tourists into space, giving them the chance to experience weightlessness and see the Earth.

This mission, named Galactic 02, is the company's second commercial flight.

The first at the end of June carried a group of senior Italian Air Force officers who had carried out several experiments on board, rather than civilians making the trip purely for pleasure.

Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic has sold around 800 tickets for seats on future commercial flights - 600 between 2005 and 2014 for $200,000 to $250,000, and 200 since then for $450,000 each.

Virgin Galactic competes in the "suborbital" space tourism sector with billionaire Jeff Bezos's company Blue Origin, which has already sent 31 people into space using a vertical lift-off rocket.

But since an accident in September 2022 during an unmanned flight, Blue Origin's rocket has been grounded. The company promised in March to resume spaceflight soon.