Ready for the thrill and challenge of a journey to the edge of space? All you need is $75,000 to reserve a seat and a mindset to float up to 100,000 feet under a balloon and enjoy the spectacular views. Among other magnificent panoramas, these vistas include the blackness of space, the starscape above, the curvature of the tiny blue Earth suspended in the universe, and sunrise in real-time!
World View Enterprises, based in Tucson, Arizona, is working on this passenger spaceflight project. According to company officials, the journey will not be physically grueling as experienced by rocket flying astronauts; in fact, as you gently ascend the layers of the atmosphere, you will also be able to enjoy a drink and share your (high) status in real-time with earthlings below.
The company plans to use high-altitude helium balloons to offer a unique spaceflight experience. So far, only 558 people—mostly astronauts and a handful of aeronauts who rose in balloons to test equipment—have seen the planet from this vantage point. World View’s modernized balloon vehicle is called Voyager, and the company is in the process of fine-tuning its technology as it aims for its first passenger flight in 2018.
World View CEO Jane Poynter says, “Travelers can expect a comfortable and gentle five-hour flight situated inside of an eight-person pressurized spacecraft complete with a mini-bar, WiFi, lavatory, and massive windows for gazing at the majesty of the planet below.” Poynter is hopeful that private citizens will engage in this transformative experience that astronauts call the “Overview Effect.” The technology used for the project will be as modern as possible in order to make the experience more enjoyable, including Tesla batteries, 3D printing, electronics and more.
What can you expect from your flight experience? When you arrive at the launch site, (perhaps after one or more security checks) your vehicle will be in its launch cradle, but first the crew will inflate the high-tech balloon with helium and rigorously check out everything for a safe lift off, float, and return! Seated in the luxurious capsule, you will gently rise for almost two hours to hover over 100,000 feet, atop 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Actually, you will be in the stratosphere, which is above the troposphere. Most of the weather and our “air” is in the troposphere.
World View promises that the balloon will not fly off into space. For your peace of mind, it may help to remind yourself that ice does not fly out of a glass of water. Once the balloon has expanded to its safe limit and has reached its “stratospheric” ceiling, you will sail there for a couple of hours.
Depending on who or how you are–you have nothing or many things to do—gaze out of the large windows at the real breathtaking panorama, or stare at its other tiny versions on your tablet, reach out to family and friends and let them know how much you miss them and how the “effect” will make you a changed person for the better or worse, or carry out your research experiment—without being disruptive to other voyagers. It may help to know that a lot of groundbreaking research has been done and needs to be done at high altitude.
Depending on the winds and its many directions, you may experience an omni-directional flight, but launch directors will make sure that the weather is favorable enough to keep you within 0 to 150 miles of wind speeds and within a 300-mile radius of the launch site.
Now, it’s time to return. You are blessed with an extraordinary pilot–possibly an astronaut. The pilot releases some of the helium from the balloon to start its gentle descent. Remote control technology is also involved, so no need to worry. Around 50,000 feet, the balloon is detached from the ParaWing and the capsule. The ParaWing glides the capsule to a predetermined spot on Earth, and you will have a soft landing.
While you remain hypnotized by your five to six-hour flight experience, the ground crew will ensure your safe return to the launch site, and hopefully your loved ones will take you from there.
Part of the reason World View embarked on the stratospheric balloon project is because consumer surveys showed that people are afraid to fly in rockets, as they seem intimidating, dangerous, and cause physical discomfort, including motion sickness. And for all their trouble, passengers would have to zoom past the best scenic part of the journey, from Earth to outer space, in just four minutes! In comparison, a gentle balloon flight, with no turbulence and no G-forces, is a luxurious space-tourism experience, which have already brought in dozens of high-flying enthusiasts who have reserved their seats.
The company has raised capital for three years to build the flight technology, and they got a step closer to achieving this purpose when they closed a Series B round of $15 million offered by Canaan Partners last April.
World View’s CTO Taber MacCallum notes that the high-altitude balloon will provide a new and affordable way to access near-space for the scientific, research, and commercial communities. “We recently introduced an un-crewed vehicle called a ‘Stratollite,’ which essentially operates like a geo-stationary satellite in the stratosphere, but at orders of magnitude less costly than comparable platforms,” says MacCallum.
The Stratollite is a flight system that allows for unmanned high-altitude balloons to perform a series of tasks at a low price, including the ability to circumnavigate the Earth. The balloon can stay in flight in a specific area for weeks or even months.
Some of the features that World View offers with the Stratollites include a payload capacity of up to 4,500 kg (9,920.802 lbs), a high-altitude capability of up to 46 km (28.58 mi), flights of both long and short durations, as well as rapid deployment. Stratollites could help in many ways, including disaster recovery and first response, communications, weather forecasting, and surveillance aid for U.S. troops.
Having flown 50 Stratollites, World View regularly flies commercial payloads to the edge of space for a wide variety of government, commercial, and education customers. Its clients include the Department of Defense, NASA, and companies from the meteorological and communication sectors.
It is an exciting time in lighter-than-air aviation, thanks to companies such as World View, which are combining modern technology, business, and a unique travel experience that will leave its participants in awe of this planet’s and the universe’s natural beauty.