The newest entry in the fledgling space (or near-space) tourism sector will see passengers take a balloon ride to an altitude of 30 km (18.6 mi) from where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth. World View Enterprises has now obtained US Federal Aviation Administration approval for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US$75,000, and are projected to begin in 2016.
A mere ten years elapsed between the first demonstration of controlled powered manned flight and the first commercial passenger air route. Those of us around at the beginning of the Space Age expected (perhaps naively) a rather rapid transition to orbital hotels and flourishing bases or colonies on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System.
Instead, nearly 70 years have passed without making much visible progress toward such a future. As a result, people are seeking something to give them a taste of space. While these sub-orbital offerings won't actually get you into space, which is defined as being 100 km (62 mi) from the Earth's surface, they may well satisfy these longings.
Enter World View Enterprises, a start-up company based in Tucson, Arizona that is trying to strike a new balance to entice space enthusiasts into the fold of space tourism. The company hopes that very its high altitude balloon flights will press enough of the right buttons that space-hungry enthusiasts will pony up $75K for a ride.
Aiming at an altitude of 30 km (19 mi, or just under 100,000 ft), two pilots and up to six passengers will enter a pressurized, shirt-sleeve environment capsule, which appears from the concept pictures to be a horizontal cylinder about 3 m in diameter and about 6 m in length.
The capsule is deployed below a parasail (used for recovery), with the pair hanging from a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cu ft) helium balloon, which provides the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to the desired 30 km altitude. The initial helium fill requires about 5000 cubic meters, costing about $50-60,000. The surface area of the balloon is about 25 acres (100,000 sq m), but as the high-density polyethylene is only about 20 microns (just under 0.001 in) in thickness, its total weight is around two tons.
The US Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the engineering and environmental challenges facing the pressurized capsule are essentially the same as those met in low-earth orbit. They are requiring that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, although it is never intended to operate at altitudes much above 30 km. It will not, however, have to follow the rules and procedures governing launch of suborbital rockets, as, in the FAA representative's perceptive words, "the World View capsule is not a rocket."
The design has a safety factor of 1.4, the same as that required of manned space systems. This is one of the largest helium balloons ever used for human flight, although it's just half the size of the Red Bull balloon from which Felix Baumgartner made his record-setting supersonic skydive.
The flight itself is projected to last about four hours. Ascent to the 30 km target altitude is estimated to take 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will remain at altitude for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.
The first step in returning the capsule to the surface is to cut away the balloon. This does produce a period of weightlessness (and likely a bit of terror), but passengers will breathe again once the capsule gains enough speed that the parafoil can provide sufficient lift to keep the descent of the capsule under control. The capsule lands as a paraglider, deploying a set of skids upon which to land.
As a physicist who did his Ph.D. thesis on low temperature physics, I have to comment on throwing away the helium with the balloon. Helium is a non-renewable resource whose origins are in the alpha decay of uranium and thorium and their decay products within the Earth's crust. Some of this helium eventually diffuses into underground cavities containing petroleum and natural gas, from which the helium can be extracted by fractional diffusion.
The problem is that no mechanism exists to replenish our accessible sources of helium in less than geological time frames, so we have to be careful to husband our limited supplies. Ultimately the market will render wasting helium uneconomical, but that date is not likely to be greatly affected by high altitude balloon flights.
All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points, such as seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, that may add up to an experience that's almost as good as being in space. However, it misses the key bragging right, a set of astronaut's wings, not by a mile, but by about 43 of them. Will enough passengers still line up for an amazing day's flight that costs a startling $75K? Time will tell, but I have my doubts. Regardless, the World View video below is amazing ( via gizmag.com ).