A private spaceflight company is one step closer to gently flying passengers to the edge of space with a balloon.
The Arizona-based company World View announced that is has successfully completed an unmanned test of a scaled-down version of its balloon spaceflight system, reaching altitudes of more than 20 miles (32 kilometers). In doing so, company officials say they broke the world record for highest parafoil flight. Photos and video of the test voyage, which took off from New Mexico last week, offer a stunning preview of the vista future passengers will experience for $75,000.
"We couldn't be any more excited about the results from this test flight," Jane Poynter, CEO of World View, said in a statement. [World View's Near-Space Balloon Rides in Pictures]
"It represents a foundational achievement that moves us one step closer to offering a life-changing experience to our Voyagers," Poynter added. (The company has been referring to its customers as "Voyagers.")
World View hopes to launch its first commercial flights by the end of 2016, with about 50 trips in its first year, promising passengers a two-hour "sailing-like experience" inside a pressurized capsule, complete with in-flight Internet access and even cocktails. In an interview with Space.com earlier this year, Poynter said the concept of the company was inspired by the way astronauts describe their experience of going to space.
"What happens is they turn around and they see Earth and they fall in love with Earth, and it really changes the way they think about things," Poynter said. "We want to be able to give that incredible experience to as many people as we can."
The five-hour test flight launched from Roswell International Air Center in New Mexico on June 18, with a 10-percent scale prototype of World View's balloon spaceflight system floating to an altitude of 120,000 feet, nearly 23 miles (37 km) off the ground — about the altitude World View officials have said their passengers will experience. Photos snapped from the stratosphere show the curvature of the planet against the blackness of space.
When the balloon drifted back down to an altitude of 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), the flight system then relied on a parafoil (a parachute-like wing) to bring it back to the ground. World View officials said they tested a backup safety parafoil, a guided landing system and their ground operations systems during the flight.
This test flight also marked the first voyage of World View's Tycho vehicle, which was carrying the Explorers Club Flag during the trip. Beyond drawing tourists and thrill-seekers, World View also hopes to attract scientific and commercial missions. Company officials said their reusable Tycho craft could be used for projects in communications, surveillance, remote sensing, first response and micro-sat payload delivery.