Infographic shows how high Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo will actually go

How high will SpaceShipTwo go compared to a weather balloon? Mt. Everest? The Space Shuttle? An ICBM? This high: SS2_infographic.jpg There is a slightly bigger version here: Infographic: How high will Virgin Galactic really go?


  1. To put the altitude of SpaceShipTwo in terms that more people can directly relate to, 68 miles is 359,040 feet.

    359,040 feet is roughly ten times higher than the altitude jet airliners normally cruise.

    1. There will still be a significant change in gravity at that point right?

      Not really. The gravitational force of the earth is nearly as strong at the altitude of the space shuttle as it is at ground level, the only reason that astronauts get to float around and we don’t is that orbiting craft are basically in free fall. You could get the same effect inside an elevator falling down a frictionless shaft, it would just be a much shorter ride.

      1. Brainspore,

        Yeah, but as far as experience goes, the apparent gravity is reduced significantly. Stuff floats.

        1. Absolutely, but that has little to do with altitude and most everything to do with trajectory. The “Vomit Comet” planes used to get astronauts accustomed to zero-g don’t fly much higher than ordinary commercial aircraft.

    2. No the astronauts will experience weightlessness due to the engine being shut off and the craft being in free-fall.

  2. The things that I found most interesting about this are the bits that are totally unrelated to SpaceshipTwo.
    – ICBMs go waay higher than ISS, or the Space Shuttle? Wow. Who knew?
    – Geosynchronous satellites are *that high*? How do they get placed up there?
    – What does Space Shuttle “altitude” of 600 mi actually mean? I always assumed that it could go wherever it wanted (like, off into the solar system) subject to limitations of fuel etc.

    1. The space shuttle isn’t flying about in space like the space ship in the game asteroids.

      Its orbiting the earth over and over again. It can *change* its orbit by using thrust, however it still has a LOT of momentum flying forward, which when combined with the acceleration of gravity, makes it move in a circle about the earth.

    2. “- What does Space Shuttle “altitude” of 600 mi actually mean? I always assumed that it could go wherever it wanted (like, off into the solar system) subject to limitations of fuel etc.”

      The Space Shuttle is an orbiter, it can only go into orbit around the Earth and not beyond it. In order to go beyond Earth orbit, you need to reach escape velocity, which the Shuttle is definitely not capable of. (Or you need to carry enough fuel for continuous thrust, which, again, it can not do.) The effective maximum orbital altitude it can reach and return from safely is 600 miles.

      @neetij: The difference is that between what altitude the Shuttle usually orbits at versus what its maximum altitude is. Just as most vehicles aren’t usually operated at their limits, the Shuttle spends most of its time well below the orbital max.

      @tillwe, the border between our atmosphere and “space” is fuzzier than most people think. The Kármán line is just what was decided upon as the most useful definition. There’s still some atmosphere left, but only in minute molecular amounts, and not enough to utilize for breathing or combustion. As such, since SpaceShipTwo can pass that line (speaking hypothetically), it is by definition a space ship. It’s suborbital, but that does not mean “not a space ship.”

  3. I’d love to see other historical flights plotted here as well – Sputnik, Gemini, U2, the altitude at which blood boils…

  4. The distance to the moon completely dwarfs the scale of anything on this chart — about 238,000 miles.

    The best-case scenario distance to mars is 46,477,943 miles, with the worst-case being a whopping 232,389,719 miles.

    1. Our moon is 239k miles, and geosynchronous is 26.2k miles. So geosynchronous is more than a tenth of the way to the moon! I’ve always been impressed by that.

      It is also fun to compare the distances in light-seconds: the moon is 1.3 seconds away, and geosynchronous is 0.12 seconds (after subtracting 4k miles for the radius of the earth). Both are a significant distance any way you look at it.

      1. > Our moon is 239k miles, and geosynchronous is 26.2k
        > miles. So geosynchronous is more than a tenth of the
        > way to the moon! I’ve always been impressed by that.

        Here’s what even cooler. That’s by distance. By energy you’re more than half way there.

        Or, as Heinlein eloquently put it, “by the time you’re in orbit you;’re halfway to anywhere”.

  5. Right, but I think anyone enquiring about Virgin Galactic (or any straight-up/straight-down, non-parabolic flight) most probably want to know if they’ll float or not :)

  6. Wait so the space shuttle can’t reach satellite heights? Really? Or am I reading this wrong.

  7. As far as I can see, that means that SpaceShip2’s maximum altitude lies in the lower reaches of the thermosphere. Would it more accurately be described as a ThermoShip?

      1. Of course, and that gives me 109 km for 68 mi, but what I mean is: why is that nice infographic using such an obsolete* way for measuring distances?

        * From this side of the Atlantic.

        1. Because it was designed for consumption by people on that side of the Atlantic?

          Why is stuff in France written in French? I’m on the metric side of the debate myself, but if miles and feet are the best way to communicate with the intended audience, so be it.

        2. Aw, you’re just jealous because your country has universal health care instead of spaceships.

          1. Right, I guess I am. Or not, if I reconsider it.

            Just to nitpick: if you count either the Ariane rockets or ESA’s “Jules Vernes” etc., there are some kind of spaceships here, too. And wasn’t that start some minutes ago the start of the last fly of the shuttle, anyway? (Or do you count the Virgin Galactic as space ship)?

          2. I guess my question then is “how many flights has the Space Shuttle completed, with what kinds of payloads, and since when, and how many flights has the ESA completed, and since when?”
            The companion question is “from where did the twelve men, who set foot on the moon, start?”

            I’ll also point out that the Imperial system is based on human dimensions. They’re likely not *your* dimensions, but probably close enough that if you wanted to estimate a foot, your foot would do well enough. The French, in their wisdom, decided to choose completely arbitrary standards instead. So now, the meter is 1,650,763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red emission line of Krypton-86 in a vacuum.
            It would have been a much more round number if they’d kept it as 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the North Pole…
            Similarly, most people would say zero degrees F is about as cold as they’d like to be. 100 is about as hot as most people like it. In centigrade, zero degrees is too warm to go skiing (practically speaking), and 100 is far too hot to support human life. As I understand, a nice afternoon in springtime is somewhere between 21 and 23 degrees, whereas a lovely day at the beach is 32 degrees.

            “Round numbers” go both ways. In the end, they’re all human constructs that have no real bearing on how the world actually works.

          3. @Anon, Yes you’re right, imperial system is based on human measurements. 1 Mile = 5280 feet is very human measurable indeed… lol

  8. “We’ve put the SpaceShipTwo up here next to the Space Shuttle, and then amended the chart to show you that it is actually not, in any way, up there next to the Space Shuttle”.

    I expect commercial enterprises to try to dupe me, but I am insulted that they believe I am so stupid as to fall prey to this transparent of a misdirection.

    1. @billstewart Thanks!

      One interesting point in Munroes diagram is the “official edge of space” with 100 km. A nice, round number, seemingly more a definition than a fact. In miles, that’s 62.137 miles (for reasons I can only guess that becomes 61 miles in the diagramm above). 62.137 miles looks like there is a real difference between atmosphere and space, and not only a imaginary line in a continuum. Like the aequator. Like a 100-km-line ;-)

      1. 100km like 62.137 or whatever are all arbitrary. There is no dfinite boundary. The reason it is 100km is because that is the European definition and they use metric. The other space authorites around the globe use slightly different definitions but all are around the 100km mark.

    1. Yes. My family lives further away than that. Of course, I don’t need to pass a physical and survive a rocket launch to go visit them.

      This would be why we really want SOMEONE to restart the/a Moon program (or Mars program, or wherever, really, just as long as we’re going back out there again ;)

  9. I seem to recall that X-15 pilots got their astronaut wings when they passed 50 miles altitude. If the Virgin Galactic craft can exceed that, then I think it’s fair to call it a spaceship.

  10. I agree that this diagram is incorrect and misleading — presumably dilerberately misleading in order to prove a point.

    All the most reliable results from a Google search of “shuttle altitude” state that the shuttle orbits between about 190-300 miles. This link from NASA says 340 miles — while that link is a little old, more recent links confirm it.

    I’m guessing that the author of this diagram chose 600 miles because it is an (unsourced) assertion from Wikipedia’s page as the very maximum that a shuttle might orbit. However, I see no other references for this number.

    My guess is that the author didn’t care, because the purpose was to make fun of SpaceShipTwo, so facts took back seat.

  11. It would be more fair to compare each in terms of necessary delta-v instead of raw distance.

    SpaceShipTwo only needs to go up and down, so it has a relatively low Dv of 1.4 km/s. To launch and actually stick around in low Earth orbit takes about 10 km/s. So the point of the infographic would be pretty unchanged.

    The neat thing is that once in LEO, the rest of space is very easy to get to. Geosynchronous orbit’s only another 4.33 km/s. The moon’s only 6 km/s away. Even Mars is under 10 km/s and a three year trip away.

  12. If you want to go beyond Earth orbit there is only one way to do it, the Saturn 5. Its the only machine able to lift people above Earth orbit. And we don’t make it anymore.

    1. The Saturn V was such an awesome machine.

      Last time I was at the Huntsville NASA museum they had a Saturn on it’s side behind the full size replicas of the other launch vehicles.(They were still building the Davidson Center to house it.)

      The Saturn V was almost half as wide as the Mercury Redstone was tall. It really gave you a sense of scale of these things.

      They have a Gemini capsule you can climb inside and imagine spending four days in. I lasted about two minutes, and it wouldn’t have been that long if they had closed the hatch.

  13. For those of you who didn’t know, when you’re in orbit around the earth you aren’t actually beyond the effects of gravity. What happens is your spaceship is falling towards the earth, but moving at a sufficient speed that it falls around the curvature of the earth in a circle. So really you are just perpetually falling. If you shot a bullet fast enough that the earth curved underneath it at the same pace it was falling then it would orbit the earth. That’s why many astronauts take a little while to adjust to the turning feeling in their stomachs because you feel as though you are falling constantly.

  14. Regarding the debate about “how high is the shuttle”, if we wait a few months we can go with 0ft. 8(

  15. It is so sad. Just as an intrasolar spacecraft becomes the size of the space shuttle’s cargo bay, we toss the damn things… ad astra’s engines appear to work, and with a decent solar array, they could go from LEO any orbit that the sun shines on(of course with a small fission reactor they could go a lot farther) and here we sit discussing sub-orbital hops that so far don’t even seem to be intercontinental.

  16. I’m a little disappointed that the artist chose to show an intact ICBM at the top. Only the reentry vehicle and the spent final stage reach apogee; the lower stages all drop off inside the atmosphere. It’s a bit like showing the shuttle with its SRBs and main tank still attached.

  17. Isn’t is interesting that 68 miles up is considered so far, yet most of us commute that far in a day. Lateral travel of a 100 miles is common, yet to get 100 miles directly away from the center of the earth is considered an achievement.

    If the SS2 carried more fuel or could refuel in space, say at the ISS, couldn’t it go much further?

    I also find it intriguing that the new “reusable” drone being tested by the USAF is carried aloft on the WK2.

    Why is it a civilian company can get into space on rubber cement and laughing gas, and NASA needs a billion pounds of unstable explosives?

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