Balloon ‘pods’ to bridge space tourism gap

After a breakfast of orange juice and strawberry short cake, in a duct-taped pressure suit, Joseph W. Kittinger stepped up onto the back of a flatbed truck and readied himself to take the “longest step in the world.”

Here in the eerie silence of space, I knew that my life depended entirely upon my equipment, my own actions, and the presence of God,” writes the U.S. Air Force captain in a 1960 issue of ‘National Geographic Magazine’.

Dangling from a crane, his open gondola hoisted into the air. The assent would take over an hour. If anything failed as he jumped from the high-altitude balloon, he would lose consciousness in 1 to 12 seconds and be dead in 2 minutes. Just months before, the parachute wrapped around his neck at 76,000 feet, sending him spinning, plummeting towards the earth in a free fall before the reserve chute opened at 10,000 feet.

He sends a message to the ground. “There is a hostile sky above me. Man will never conquer space. He may live in it, but he will never conquer it. The sky above is void, very black and very hostile."

Kittinger’s mission, vital to testing life-support systems in the pre-dawn era of manned spaceflight, laid the foundation for a new segment in the burgeoning space tourism market and two men, each with astrophysicist fathers, are hurtling into the field with high-performance balloon ‘pods’ promising to take tourists to the edge of space.

“The dream is safe, comfortable, without fear or trepidation to float through a starlit sky at dawn watching the light come across the planet with your favorite drink and favorite friend,” says World View Enterprises founder Taber MacCallum.

MacCallum, whose father worked on the Wright Brothers’ propellers, was part of the team behind Google executive Alan Eustace’s recent record-setting jump from 135,872 feet. As a longtime space researcher, he even participated in a two-year moon colony isolation experiment in the 1990’s.

He envisions one-to-two-hour voyages aboard a luxury capsule equipped with a bar and bathrooms in sail-like journeys for two crew members and six passengers. The $75,000 ticket will strap in passengers for take-off and landing in a Wi-Fi enabled craft for the ultimate selfie. According to the company, several flights are sold out for the 2016 inaugural launch.

He says the World View experience will be less for adrenaline junkies but adventure seekers and space enthusiasts looking for a “calmer” ride.

In the wake of two commercial space tragedies, particularly the loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, aerospace engineer and entrepreneur José Mariano López-Urdiales is even more convinced high-altitude balloons are the ideal transition for the industry as the “next feasible cost effective step to bring space closer to people.”

“It's a stark reminder that engineering and rigor has to take precedence over public relations and spin if one wants to move beyond selling tickets and into a fully operational industry,” says López-Urdiales. “The opportunity is still there since the Russians still sell tickets at $60 million, and have a three-year waiting list, anything below that price that works has a market but it has to be done in a different way."

His company Zero2infinity has been working on high-performance balloon rides since 2009 for an experience which will take tourists to a height of 22 miles for $150,000.  The flights will be launched from Spain.

Full weightlessness is not an option on balloon capsule voyages. However, when the capsule detaches from the balloon and transitions to the parafoil, passengers will experience a few seconds of reduced gravity.

Both World View Enterprises and Zero2infinity use similar technology, which in essence uses a high-altitude balloon to lift a capsule, equipped with a parachute, or “para-wing,” for the journey along the edge of space.   While full weightlessness is not an option on these trips, when the capsule detaches from the balloon and transitions to the para-wing passengers will experience a few seconds of reduced gravity and see the earth against the blackness of space via 360 degree capsule window seats.

A 2012 Tauri Group market analysis on sub-orbital space tourism estimated that 40 percent of the 8,000 high net-worth individuals surveyed would be interested in sub-orbital flights.  However, could offering a “taste” of space bridge the gap between NASA’s human spaceflight launches and the rocket rides being tested by commercial space tourism companies.

“That is the hope of the space community,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. “Are you going to give astronaut wings to every space tourist? It trivializes the definition of the astronaut. I don’t think so.”

MacCallum says his goal is a fundamental change in the perception of the planet. “Not, in a tree-huggy way,” he adds. “Just like those first pictures of the moon and the earth in the 1960’s, space tourism will provide a visceral experience that will change man’s view of our world.”