Company to balloon tourists to the edge of space

If the thought of a rocket ride to space -- or the $250,000 price tag to get there -- leaves you feeling queasy, an Arizona firm thinks it has a gentler, less expensive alternative.

World View, an offshoot of privately owned Paragon Space Development Corp., is developing a balloon-launched, near-space ride for $75,000 -- less than one-third the current cost to fly on Virgin Galactic's suborbital SpaceShipTwo.

World View passengers will soar to an altitude of about 100,000 feet -- far short of SpaceShipTwo’s intended 68-mile high peak. Inside the capsule there will be little sensation of microgravity. Rather, the whole point of the ride is the view.

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“You can be sitting up there having your beverage of choice watching this extraordinary spectacle of the Earth below you and the blackness of space,” project co-founder and Paragon president Jane Poynter told Discovery News.

“It really is very gentle. You can be up at altitude for hours, for days for research if you need to be ... I think we have the opportunity to give a really, really incredible experience to people -- and for a lot less than most of what’s out on the market right now,” she said.

World View expects to begin selling tickets within a few months.

Company officials decided to unveil the project early because of a forthcoming, public determination by the Federal Aviation Administration that Paragon’s six-passenger, two-pilot vehicle qualifies as a spacecraft.

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“At Paragon’s intended altitude, water and blood boil, and an unprotected person would rapidly experience fatal decompression,” wrote the FAA, which oversees commercial spaceflight in the United States.

“Regardless of whether 30 kilometers constitutes outer space -- and the FAA renders no opinion on that questions -- a person would experience the same physiological responses at 30 kilometers as if exposed to the environment of low-Earth orbit. Thus, Paragon’s capsule will need to be space-qualified,” the FAA said.

The company expects to launch World View rides at several locations through the United States and eventually throughout the world. Poynter and project co-founder Taber MacCallum declined to identify an initial base of operations, but the FAA documents show the firm eyeing Spaceport America, located north of Las Cruces, New Mexico, for its first flights. Virgin Galactic is Spaceport America’s anchor tenant.

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Rather than the airplane tow and rocket boost that will send Virgin Galactic’s passengers beyond the atmosphere for a few minutes of weightlessness and sight-seeing, World View capsules will be propelled into the sky by giant helium balloons.

For added safety and for landing, a steerable parafoil will be deployed during ascent and throughout the ride. “You can effectively glide the vehicle back down to the ground from just about any altitude. So it’s a really great safety feature,” Poynter said.

The capsule descends in 20 to 40 minutes and lands on skids.

“Virgin Galactic and other others have really demonstrated that there is a market for experience,” said MacCallum, Paragon’s chief executive and chief technical officer.

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Virgin Galactic, owned by Richard Branson’s London-based Virgin Group, so far has sold about 650 rides on SpaceShipTwo, which currently is undergoing testing in Mojave, Calif. Commercial flights are expected to begin next year.

“One of the things we’re looking at is launching at night so that you get up to altitude and then see dawn from the edge of space and really see that whole transformation of the ground below you and see the terminator -- the edge of sunlight -- move along the Earth below you,” MacCallum said.

Poynter declined to discuss World View’s development costs except to say that funding is in place for a sub-scale demonstration project expected to begin later this year.

Commercial passenger service could begin in about three years, Poynter added.