Boarding Soon: A Balloon to the Stratosphere?

22 Oct

And now, a high-altitude adventure for the leisure class, people who do not want to be jostled as they sip Champagne and gaze down at Earth’s curved blue surface.

A new space tourism company namedWorld View unveiled its plans on Tuesday to loft passengers to the stratosphere as early as 2015, not by rocket but by giant balloon. Price: $75,000.

World View is led by the same people involved in Inspiration Mars, a private endeavor to launch two people in 2018 to a flyby of the red planet.

“This is a very gentle flight that will last for hours aloft,” said Jane Poynter, World View’s chief executive. She said the cabin would be about the size of that of a private jet, and would have a ” superbly comfortable, luxurious interior where you can get up and stand upright and move around and go back to the bar and get a drink.”

Over the past few years, space tourism companies likeVirgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have sold hundreds of tickets for suborbital rocket trips, with the first paying passengers scheduled to get their rides as early as next year. But the rockets are essentially big roller-coaster rides, with the exciting portion at the top of the arc lasting just a few minutes.

By contrast, World View’s balloon and capsule, with six passengers and two crew members, would take about an hour and a half to reach altitude and then drift for a couple of hours before the balloon was jettisoned and the capsule would glide back to Earth beneath an inflated parasail.

“We really think there is a market for being able to contemplate the view,” said Taber MacCallum, the company’s chief technology officer.

World View’s trips would be less expensive than the rocket rides: Virgin Galactic charges $250,000 and XCOR $95,000.

The principal shortcoming: you would not actually get to space, nor would you get to call yourself an astronaut afterward. The balloon would rise about 20 miles, or not quite a third of the way to the 62-mile-high altitude that is considered the beginning of outer space. But that is high enough to view the planet’s curvature and for the sky to darken from blue to black.

The trip would be more like that of Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian daredevil who last year leapt from a balloon at an altitude of more than 24 miles, but with more comfort and a less exhilarating return to the ground.

“We promise we won’t open the door and have you jump back to Earth,” Ms. Poynter joked.

Even though the World View capsule will not reach space, the Federal Aviation Administration will regulate it as a commercial space venture, because the capsule is built to operate in space conditions. World View’s application to the F.A.A. noted that at an altitude of 20 miles, water and blood boil and decompression would be fatal.

Launching sites have not yet been chosen. Test flights carrying scientific payloads could lift off sooner. Scientists have used balloons, small rockets, and even gliders to study the region. The nascent commercial space companies like World View could offer more opportunities for scientists at a lower cost.

The wife-and-husband team of Ms. Poynter and Mr. MacCallum previously foundedParagon Space Development Company, the technology firm that is working with the entrepreneur Dennis Tito, who is leading the Inspiration Mars effort. Paragon will also develop World View’s capsule, but the two are separate companies.

Investors in the venture include Philippe Bourguignon, a former president of Euro Disney and current chief executive of Miraval resorts, Ms. Poynter said.

Slika

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