A New Space Travel Company Is Offering Cheaper, Safer Flights
(Bloomberg) -- Let go of a balloon, and it will float up into the air, ascending higher and further away until it’s eventually out of sight. And maybe—if it’s a very special balloon—it will reach the stratosphere.
That’s the simple, underlying idea behind the latest space travel venture. Space Perspective aims to use giant “space balloons” to bring eight people at a time to a 19-mile-high (30.6-km-high), pitch-black lookout for $125,000 views of the planet Earth. Its tourist flights go on sale on Wednesday, June 23, after a private pre-sale period that has already sold out at least three initial trips—all slated for takeoff in 2024.
The company’s co-founders, Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, met while taking part in Biosphere 2—the famed, failed experiment of the early ’90s that explored the viability of human life in outer space. For two years in the Arizona desert, they lived with six others in a glorified greenhouse set up for completely self-sustained living, modeling what it would be like to set up a commune on Mars, for instance.
Since then, the pair has served as technical advisors to Elon Musk on human space flight, founded a tech company focusing on life support systems for space exploration, and helped Google engineer Alan Eustace set a record in 2014 for the highest space balloon flight ever recorded: 135,890 feet (41,419 meters), about 25.7 miles.
When their vessel, Neptune One, gets its finishing touches, likely in late 2023, it will join a nascent space tourism industry, which—while predicted and hyped-up for decades—is finally bearing some real fruit. Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin just auctioned off a seat on an 11-minute space flight for $28 million, set to depart on July 20. (Bezos will notably be on board.) And Virgin Galactic’s long-delayed $250,000 flights for private citizens appear to be in a series of near-final tests. The company expects to send researchers into orbit next year, with Branson planning to join in a mission before 2023.
Space Perspective is different than its competitors in several key ways. For one, it doesn’t actually reach “space.”
Although definitions vary, NASA considers that boundary as leaving the mesosphere 50 miles above mean sea level; international bodies 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 views but no time in zero gravity. “There isn’t really a definition of space,” argues Poynter, speaking over Zoom from the company’s headquarters in Cape Canaveral, Fla. “From this environment, you’re afforded that quintessential experience of seeing the earth just as astronauts do.”
The trade-off is a safer, smoother flight that requires no pre-flight training for its passengers. It feels “as easy and straightforward as flying on a commercial airline,” says Poynter.
“[Traveling by space balloon] is completely the opposite of rocket flight,” she continues. The raucous pyrotechnics of liftoff are replaced with a silent, almost serene float-away at bicycle speed (12 mph). “You would feel multiple Gs of pressure in a typical rocket flight takeoff; astronauts say it’s like an elephant sitting on your chest. It’s loud and terrifying, and perhaps even medically prohibitive.”
Passengers will arrive on site a few days before a trip, allowing some time to visit the launchpad, tour the Neptune One capsule, and make sure everyone feels comfortable and at ease.
The trips will last about six hours—a test flight conducted last week took 6 hours and 39 minutes—departing well before the crack of dawn in order to arrive at the highest point of orbit in time to see the sun rise from the stratosphere. Along the way, space travelers can get out of their reclining seats, eat breakfast (which will be customized to their liking), order drinks from a bar, or chat up the pilot, who is expected to double as tour guide. There’s even Wi-Fi on board to live stream the flights, or allow for real-time Instagramming. (Yes, there’s also a bathroom.)
Poynter has yet to complete a flight. But based on the accounts of space jumpers and astronauts, as well as images from cameras mounted on space balloons, she has a sense of what to expect: “You’ll see the most amazing stars on the way up, and then you’ll see the sun just begin to peek out above the limit of the horizon, the sunlight blasting through in rainbow colors.” Eventually, she says, a thin blue line will crack the plane of pitch-black darkness—a view made iconic by astronauts and that appears only when the sun illuminates certain layers of the atmosphere.
Eventually the balloon will begin to gently deflate, and the capsule will land in a large body of water. The feeling will be similar to the landing of a normal airplane. A special boat will use sophisticated modeling to position itself right beside the landing spot, lift the capsule onto its deck, and bring passengers back to shore. It’s the same recovery system being used by SpaceX, says Poynter, adding that the capsule landed within a half-mile of the boat during last week’s test.
Space Perspective expects to conduct around 25 flights in its first year of operation, ramping up to 100 flights per location per year. The first launchpad will be at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, but because the balloons don’t require rocket propulsion, Poynter expects to scale her operation to any location within 100 miles of a large body of water suitable for the return splashdown. “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 remains the most expensive part of the flight. Space Perspective’s balloons are made of high-tensile polyethylene and inflate to a height of 700 feet. At 18 million cubic feet in volume, they’re large enough to fit a football stadium inside. To provide lift, they’d normally use helium, but the gas is under immense shortages because it’s used in respirators that treat Covid-19. Instead, the company is using hydrogen to create buoyancy.
“Our entire vehicle is reusable, except for the space balloon itself, which is single use,” says Poynter. “That’s where a significant amount of the cost is.” The capsule itself is cozy, at roughly 16 feet in diameter, and beautifully designed, with panoramic windows designed to eliminate glare from those once-in-a-lifetime snapshots of what Poynter might call “Biosphere 1.”
As for any Hindenburg-like disasters, Poynter isn’t concerned about, saying that hydrogen is the choice of balloonists around the world. “Airships aren’t designed for hydrogen,” she says, but “there have been no recorded gas balloon flight failures caused by hydrogen going all the way back to the earliest flights in the 1700s.”
To her point, space balloons have been widely used without issue, both to deploy satellites and on other unmanned missions, as well as for such stunts as Red Bull’s space jump, which used a helium-filled bubble to convey Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner to his literal jumping point 128,000 feet above ground. Even still, Neptune One has a number of redundant systems ready to deploy under any emergency circumstance.
Poynter hopes to bring down the production costs as the company scales up—which could theoretically make the space flights more accessible. For now, she says, there’s “crazy demand,” revealing she sold 25 tickets immediately after a single hour-long webinar. Last year, a survey by research firm Cowen put the market for Virgin Galactic tickets at about $234 billion. It’s unclear how much of that market is driven by the glory of becoming an astronaut and feeling the lightness of zero gravity, and how much of it can be satisfied with a less costly, less bumpy ride to the world’s prettiest lookout.
Still, space travel—or at least stratosphere travel—for the masses is Poynter’s goal.
“Imagine, if you have eventually millions of people who have experienced seeing our planet in space, it could have a huge impact on our society,” she says. “Look at astronauts’s behavior before and after going to space: Most, if not all, get more involved in social and environmental causes after going, because they feel so much more connected to the human family after that experience. There could be a huge ripple effect.”
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