August 10, 2023 will be an indelible memory for Keisha Schahaff. That was the day she flew into space. She saw the earth from suborbital space on Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity (Galactic 02) space craft. Accompanied by her 18 year-old daughter Anastasia Mayers, together they became the first female astronauts from the Caribbean and the first mother-daughter duo from the Caribbean to take that epic journey into the heavens.
This second commercial spaceflight for Virgin Galactic carried three private passengers including a former Olympian, 80 year-old Jon Goodwin, opening access to ordinary humans with the desire to fly. But, before the historic flight, Caribbean Today caught up with Schahaff, Astronaut 012, to find out how she got on this unforgettable path.
Born, raised, and still resident on the Caribbean island of Antigua, Schahaff, mother to two daughters and a self-development coach, was always curious about the universe.
“I've always had an interest in space. I was one of those kids who would ask you every question. I needed to know what's our purpose here on this planet? Why are clouds there? Why is Earth there? I've always felt like there's so much more to know beyond our planet. And for us to understand our existence here on this planet we need to know what more is out there. And I feel that the foundation of life is not what's on earth, but what’s beyond,” explained a passionate Schahaff.
The proud Antiguan never thought she would ever get the chance to explore her passion for the world beyond planet earth. But, the universe conspired to give her that opportunity on a Virgin Atlantic flight from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom in 2021. On that fateful journey to get to Aberdeen, Scotland where her daughter Anastasia would be studying at Aberdeen University, an ad came up on her window seat TV screen boldly asking ‘would you like to be an astronaut’? It was a competition to win two seats on Virgin Galactic’s commercial spacecraft. Open to all, it was run by Space for Humanity, a non-profit organisation with the commitment to bring diversity to space and science. Almost in a trance, she applied to the draw that raised $1.7 million for the program expanding access to space for all humans. Schahaff won those two seats, choosing her daughter Anastasia (Astronaut 013), who incidentally wants to be an astrobiologist, as her co-astronaut.
“When I say this is beyond me and bigger than me, it is. All I can do is surrender and show up,” Schahaff said when asked about her reaction to winning the seats.
“My whole life has been an exploration of self, she continued. And I believe that just as we see the universe as external, it’s within us. As a self-development coach, this is what I promote, constantly developing yourself. So all I can see is that my life has been one of transformation.”
Schahaff is proudly representing her country, the wider Caribbean, all women. She noted: As women we are so powerful, we are the healers of this planet. If we want our planet to thrive and be successful, then us women we need to step up. We need to heal ourselves. And this journey is one of healing.
So, how will she and Anastasia prepare for this epic flight into space?
“My daughter has such a strong mind and a strong will. But at the end of the day, she's still human, and she's still delicate. It's like in everything there are the two sides. She’s watched me from since she was a little baby, meditating and practising positive affirmations and gratitude. An awareness of self through meditation, gratitude practice, and affirmations to rewire your mindset. So I've been preparing for this all my life,” Schahaff explained.
In addition, they get support from Virgin Galactic’s readiness program where they learn about the various steps to come, fitness regimen, and the safety procedures of the craft. They are also part of Space for Humanity’s leadership and citizen astronauts programme that looks at how they can make an impact at the end of the experience.
Schahaff pointed out that without Virgin Galactic and Space for Humanity a journey like this would not be possible for the ordinary person like herself. Their vision has opened up space to so many that will allow them to experience the overview effect, seeing the earth and all around it from suborbital space. Together these organizations are breaking the mould, bringing space encounter to those who never thought it possible.
“If more minds can start coming together like this and expanding like this, then we’re really going to another level on our planet… This is how we bring unity, because this is something that we're sharing with everybody. And when we have something in common, we can go into peace.”
After some 90 minutes on board followed by a perfect landing at Virgin Galactic’s New Mexico launch site, the crew emerged changed for the experience.
“I 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, part of earth,” said an emotional Anastasia.
“It’s one of the most inspiring things that could ever happen. It tells us that we can do anything that we set our minds to, anything that we want we can achieve. And I hope that it’s motivation for other young people to dedicate their time and their efforts to reaching their goals,” said the youngest person to travel to space.
Her mom’s advice? Dream big.
“You will be uncomfortable trying to get to that dream. But, this is how we stretch ourselves. You have to go beyond your limits, and that’s how you get there. Don’t worry how to get there, the universe will figure that out for you. You just keep taking that step and the next step. You never know how things will align for you, it did for me.”