New space travel company offers tourists hot air balloon rides in the stratosphere

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Drop a balloon and it will float in the air, rising further and further until it is finally out of sight. And maybe – if it’s a very special balloon – it will hit the stratosphere.

This is the simple, underlying idea of ​​the latest space travel company. Space Perspective aims to use giant “space balloons” to take eight people at a time to a 30.6 km-high black point of view for $ 125,000 views of planet Earth.

Its tourist flights will go on sale on Wednesday, June 23, after a private presale period that has already sold out at least three initial trips, all scheduled for takeoff in 2024.

Company co-founders Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum met while participating in Biosphere 2, the famous failed experiment of the early ’90s that explored the viability of human life in space.

For two years in the Arizona desert, they lived with six others in a glorified greenhouse set up for completely independent living, modeling what it would be like to create a commune on Mars, for example.

Since then, the couple have served as technical advisers to Elon Musk on manned space flight, founded a tech company focused on life support systems for space exploration, and helped Google engineer Alan Eustace set a record in 2014 for the highest space balloon flight on record. : 135,890 feet (41,419 meters), approximately 25.7 miles.

When their ship, the Neptune One, gets its final touches, likely at the end of 2023, it will join an emerging space tourism industry that, though predicted and exalted for decades, is finally paying off.

Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, has just auctioned off a seat for an 11-minute space flight for $ 28 million, which is scheduled to depart on July 20. (Bezos will notably be on board.)

And Virgin Galactic’s long-delayed flights of $ 250,000 for private citizens appear to be in a near-final test series. The company plans to send researchers into orbit next year, with Branson planning to join a mission before 2023.

Space Perspective is different from its competition in several ways. On the one hand, it does not really reach “space”.

Although definitions vary, NASA considers this boundary to leave the mesosphere 50 miles above mean sea level; international agencies put it higher, at 62 miles, a measure known as the Kármán Line.

Neptune One reaches a maximum orbit of 100,000 feet, which means epic sights but no weightless weather. “There isn’t really a definition of space,” Poynter argues, speaking to Zoom from the company’s headquarters in Cape Canaveral, Fla. “From this environment, you get the quintessential experience of seeing Earth as astronauts do.”

The trade-off is a safer, smoother flight that requires no pre-flight training for its passengers. It’s “as simple and straightforward as flying on a commercial airline,” Poynter explains.

“[Traveling by space balloon] is the complete opposite of rocket flight, ”she continues. The noisy pyrotechnics of take-off are replaced by a silent and almost serene float at the speed of a bicycle (12 mph). “You would feel several Gs of pressure during a typical rocket flight takeoff; astronauts say it’s like an elephant sitting on your chest. It’s loud and terrifying, and maybe even medically prohibitive.

The experience

Passengers will arrive there a few days before a trip, giving them time to tour the launch pad, tour the Neptune One capsule, and make sure everyone feels comfortable and at ease.

The trips will last around six hours – a test flight last week lasted 6 hours and 39 minutes – and will depart well before dawn in order to reach the highest point in orbit in time to see the sun rise from the stratosphere.

Along the way, space travelers can get out of their reclining seats, have their breakfast (which will be personalized to their liking), order drinks at a bar, or chat with the pilot, who should also act as a guide. There’s even an onboard Wi-Fi connection for live streaming flights or enabling real-time Instagram. (Yes, there is also a bathroom.)

Poynter has not yet flown. But based on tales of jumpers and space astronauts, as well as images from cameras mounted on space balloons, she has an idea of ​​what to expect: “You will see the most amazing stars on the way up, then you see the sun just starting to point above the limit of the horizon, the sunlight breaking through the colors of the rainbow.

Eventually, she says, a thin blue line will crack the plane of total darkness – a sight made iconic by astronauts and which only appears when the sun illuminates certain layers of the atmosphere.

Eventually, the balloon will begin to slowly deflate and the capsule will land in a large body of water. The sensation will be similar to landing a normal plane. A special boat will use sophisticated modeling to position itself right next to the landing point, lift the capsule onto its deck, and bring passengers back to shore.

It’s the same recovery system that SpaceX uses, Poynter explains, adding that the capsule landed less than half a mile from the boat during last week’s test.

Space Perspective plans to perform approximately 25 flights in its first year of operation, ramping up to 100 flights per location per year. The first launch pad will be at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, but since balloons do not require rocket propulsion,

Poynter plans to expand its operation to any location within 100 miles of a large body of water suitable for return ditching. “We have pretty low infrastructure needs,” she says. “We’re pretty much designed to be mobile. “

Safety, materials and costs

Even without the cost of rockets and fuel, propulsion is still the most expensive part of flight. Space Perspective balloons are made of high strength polyethylene and inflate to a height of 700 feet. With a volume of 18 million cubic feet, they are large enough to contain a football stadium.

To provide a lift, they would normally use helium, but the gas is experiencing immense shortages as it is used in respirators that treat Covid-19. Instead, the company uses hydrogen to create buoyancy.

“Our entire vehicle is reusable, with the exception of the space balloon itself, which is single-use,” Poynter explains. “That’s where a big part of the cost is. The capsule itself is comfortable, measuring approximately 16 feet in diameter and beautifully designed, with panoramic windows designed to eliminate the glare of those unique snapshots of what Poynter might call “Biosphere 1”.

As with all Hindenburg-type disasters, Poynter isn’t worried, saying hydrogen is the choice of aeronauts around the world. “Airships are not designed for hydrogen,” she says, but “there have been no recorded hydrogen-caused gas balloon flight failures dating back to first flights in the 1700s.”

In his opinion, space balloons were widely used without problems, both for deploying satellites and on other unmanned missions, as well as for stunts such as the Red Bull space jump, which used a filled bubble. of helium to transport Austrian parachutist Felix Baumgartner to his literal jump point at 128,000 feet above the ground.

Even still, Neptune One has a number of redundant systems ready for deployment under any emergency circumstances.

Poynter hopes to reduce production costs as the business grows, which could theoretically make spaceflight more accessible. Right now, she says, there is a “crazy demand,” revealing that she sold 25 tickets immediately after just one hour-long webinar.

Last year, a survey by research firm Cowen valued the Virgin Galactic ticket market at around $ 234 billion. It’s unclear how much of this market is driven by the glory of becoming an astronaut and feeling the lightness of weightlessness, and how satisfied it can be with a cheaper and less bumpy ride to the most beautiful lookout in the world. world.

Still, space travel – or at least the stratosphere – for the masses is Poynter’s goal.

“Imagine, if you finally got millions of people who saw our planet in space, it could have a huge impact on our society,” she says.

“Look at the behavior of astronauts before and after they leave for space: most, if not all, become more involved in social and environmental causes after they leave, because they feel so much more connected to the human family after this experience. . There could be a huge ripple effect.


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