Virgin numbers: Branson makes it to space (maybe)

Four people in blue suits. Two men and two women. They all wear sunglasses and straps on their body
The passengers aboard the space flight. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The billionaires’ race to space has been won by Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, who took a spaceflight aboard the VSS Unity on the 11th July, the first billionaire to reach the peak in their own craft. There is a little question of whether he actually got high enough, or whether he only made it to the edge of space, because of different definitions of where space starts.

Sure, it is a great feat, but I am a numbers gal, so here are the numbers involved in the spaceflight.


Kilometres. The altitude where the spaceplane VSS Unity detached from VMS Eve, the mothership.


Kilometres. The highest point of the spaceflight. This is above the height where the US considers space to start (80km), but below the internationally recognised line of …


Kilometres. The height of the Kármán line – the internationally recognised altitude where space begins. This point was originally the aim of the spaceflight, but difficulties during development meant the rocket couldn’t go that high. There is some debate whether Branson can make the claim that he reached “space”.

Inforgraphic of craft at different heights. The rocket is shows at surface, then vertically in the stratosphere. At the thermosphere the spaceship is at 80km. The wings fold back in at the ozone lager. At 15km the wings defeather and it glides home.
Credit: Guardian/Virgin Galactic/Reuters


The expected year that commercial flights become available… for the right price.


US dollars. The price for one ticket to space with Virgin Galactic, when commercial flights are available.


Minutes. The entire duration of the trip. For a $250,000 ticket, that’s $3,571 per minute for the experience.


Minutes. The time it took for VMS Eve to ascend to 13 kilometres, when it detached from VSS Unity, which continued to ascend alone.


Minutes. The full duration of time VSS Unity spent detached from VMS Eve.


Minutes. The total time the crew spent weightless in near zero gravity conditions. Half of this time they were still buckled in their seats.


Minutes. The time the crew spent weightless, when they were able to float around the cabin.


Branson’s age at time of flight. The oldest person to travel to space was John Glenn, in 1998 at the age of 77. This record is set to be broken by 82-year-old Wally Funk aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket system, which is set to launch July 20.


Years. How long the whole project took to develop. In 2004, Mojave Aerospace Ventures won the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million by building a reusable spacecraft that could make two trips to space every fortnight. Shortly after winning, the company licensed the technology to Richard Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic to build the craft.

“Congratulations to all our wonderful people at Virgin Galactic and their 17 years of hard, hard work to get us this far,” Branson said while onboard the spacecraft.


Reservations. The number of prebooked tickets aboard the VSS Unity when commercial flights become available.


People. The number who can fit onboard VSS Unity, including two pilots and six passengers. The inaugural flight that included Branson consisted of two pilots and only four passengers in total.


G-forces. The maximum force experienced by the crew during descent was 6 times that of gravity on Earth, albeit only for a few seconds. Based on Branson’s mass and weight on earth (around 88kg, 844 Newtons at 1 G-force), that would be approximately 5,170 Newtons of force, or the equivalent of being sat on by a yak. This G-force would be too much to withstand for any extended period of time, but the combination of spacesuits and training make it survivable for a short period.


People. The amount of people who had been beyond 80km above Earth before the VSS Unity.


US dollars. The approximate cost of research and development of both the spaceflight vehicles.


Kilometres per hour. The speed VSS Unity’s can reach to push itself into space after detaching from VMS Eve. This is approximately Mach 3.


Days. The time until Jeff Bezos makes his planned spaceflight on July 20. He plans to go beyond 100km, and claims that Branson didn’t actually get high enough to claim the title of first billionaire to reach space in their own craft.

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