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West Hartford Native Makes Virgin Galactic Space Connection

Omaze CEO and co-founder Matt Pohlson, Sir Richard Branson, Omaze winner Keisha, and Space For Humanity Executive Director Rachel Lyons congratulate Keisha at her home in Antigua. Courtesy of Space for Humanity

Rachel Lyons, a 2013 graduate of West Hartford’s Hall High School, was thrilled to surprise the winner of a contest to travel to space, awarded through a program that also raised roughly $1.7 million for the nonprofit organization she directs.

By Ronni Newton

A woman from Antigua was announced last week as the winner of the Omaze and Virgin Galactic sweepstakes to received a once-in-a-lifetime space travel experience, and Rachel Lyons, who grew up in West Hartford and graduated from Hall High School, was thrilled to be part of a team of three people to surprise Keisha S. with the great news that she will be flying to space on one of Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflights.

Lyons, who now lives in Denver, is executive director of Space for Humanity, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to expanding space for all humanity. The sweepstakes raised roughly $1.7 million for the organization through the Omaze fundraising platform.

Lyons joined Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson and Omaze CEO and co-founder Matt Pohlson to deliver the exciting news to Keisha, a life and health coach and former flight attendant, that she, accompanied by a guest of her choice, will fulfill her lifelong dream of traveling to space.

Keisha, 44, who hopes to bring her daughter – an astrophysics student – to join her, had previously entered the sweepstakes, which required a donation of just $10, to win the chance to travel aboard a Virgin Galactic flight. “I’ve always had a lifelong love of flying and a fascination with space, and this is truly a dream come true for me,” Keisha said in a statement. The two will also have a chance to tour Space Corps.

“She had no idea,” Lyons said. As can be seen in the YouTube video below of the surprise, Keisha was told she was a finalist in the contest, but then the trio showed up at her door.

“Getting to meet Keisha and share this news with her is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Lyons said. “The passion that she shares for human space travel and the transformative potential that it has speaks so beautifully to our mission at Space For Humanity. We are honored to have Keisha join our community, and we could not be more excited to support her training as she prepares for this adventure.”

Lyons said she started interning as a volunteer with Space for Humanity while she was still in college. She earned her degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Miami in 2017, and in 2018 became Space for Humanity’s executive director – and first full-time employee.

At Hall she had a strong interest in both science and math inspired by teachers Nicola Culmo and Kyle Misiaszek. She started off studying industrial engineering at the University of Miami, until one summer her friend Corey Roth encouraged her to watch the documentary series “Cosmos” with him.

It was life-altering, Lyons said, and when she returned to college that fall she switched her major to aerospace engineering.

The visuals in the documentary, the effect of clearly seeing that the earth as a planet floating in the universe, gave Lyons a perspective of humanity that she had not had before, and she credits Roth – who just happened to like space – with changing the path of her life.

Now this sweepstakes, Lyons said, “is a transformational moment for Space for Humanity.”

The organization, through its Citizen Astronaut Program, seeks to provide leaders from all industries and walks of life with the “overview effect,” which Lyons said is a shift in awareness that results from looking down on the earth from space. People often return from space as humanitarians after gaining, literally, a global perspective.

“The perspective that is gained by astronauts – that we live on a floating, interconnected, fragile planet – is invaluable when we think about tackling humanity’s greatest challenges,” said Lyons.

“It often inspires them to steward causes of their own,” she said.

“We believe that this is the most important perspective of our time, and by giving people from all over the world access to this transformational experience, we can renew our relationship with each other, and our planet,” said Lyons. “The funds coming in from this campaign allow us to continue moving full steam ahead at a truly pivotal moment in the future of human spaceflight and exploration.”

Lyons said Space for Humanity is looking to continue to expand the Citizen Astronaut Program to include full crews of six to eight people, with flights at least once a year.

While Keisha will actually be traveling to space aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, Space for Humanity also has contracts for flights with stratospheric balloon companies. “You don’t get your astronaut wings, but you do get to see the curvature of the earth,” she said.

Virgin Galactic, which has been pioneering space flight for private individuals and researchers, approached Space for Humanity as their partner for this undertaking, Lyons said. One hundred percent of the donations for this experience were made to Charities Aid Foundation America (CAF America) through Omaze, which will grant the donations, minus the experience fees and costs, to Space for Humanity.

Lyons also noted that Virgin Galactic is also looking to “revolutionize travel” through its space program, with the goal of eventually making point-to-point travel between its hubs in New Mexico and Abu Dhabi possible in an hour.

While Lyons experienced some of that “overview effect” just from watching “Cosmos,” she hasn’t yet been to space herself. “I have a goal to go by my 30th birthday,” the 26-year-old said. “My ultimate goal is to go to the moon.”

For more information about Space for Humanity, visit www.spaceforhumanity.org

More information about Virgin Galactic can be found here.

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