TUCSON, Arizona — A new type of space tourism is set to lift off two years from now, without the aid of a rocket.
Arizona-based World View Enterprises aims to start launching paying customers to the stratosphere in 2017 beneath a giant balloon, for $75,000 per seat. Passengers will spend two hours at an altitude of 100,000 feet (30,500 meters), where they'll be able to see the blackness of space and the curvature of Earth, company representatives say.
"I hear a lot of people say this: 'I don't want to have lived my entire life on this planet and never really seen it,'" World View chief technology officer Taber MacCallum told Space.com late last month here at the company's headquarters near Tucson International Airport. [World View's Near-Space Balloon Rides in Pictures]
"There's a really interesting psychology surrounding getting that perspective, which is why we called [the company] World View," MacCallum added.
A different kind of experience
World View passengers will ride aboard a pressurized capsule that accommodates six paying customers and two crewmembers.
A huge, helium-filled balloon will loft the 10,000-lb. (4,535 kilograms) capsule to the stratosphereduring a gentle ascent that takes 90 minutes to 2 hours. The launch site for these flights is unclear at the moment; the company is currently deciding between Florida and Arizona, MacCallum said.
The gondola, which is classified as a spacecraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, will then cruise at 100,000 feet for another two hours or so. When it's time to descend, the pilot will start venting helium from the balloon. After a while, the balloon and capsule will separate, with the latter eventually making a soft landing at a predetermined site with the aid of a steerable, parachute-like device called a parafoil. (The balloon will be recovered and recycled.)
The entire flight will last for five or six hours. The distance between launch and landing sites could be as great as 300 miles (480 kilometers), depending on winds, World View representatives say.
The balloon experience will be very different from the suborbital spaceflights that Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace plan to offer with their in-development rocket planes, which are called SpaceShipTwo and Lynx, respectively.
For starters, World View is cheaper: tickets for the six-passenger SpaceShipTwo and the one-passenger Lynx are currently selling for $250,000 and $100,000, respectively (though Lynx rides will cost $150,000 starting on Jan. 1, 2016).
In addition, World View's balloons will float gently through the atmosphere, while SpaceShipTwo and Lynx will give customers a pulse-pounding rocket ride. The two space planes will also go much higher than World View — about 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth, the traditionally accepted boundary where outer space begins.
People aboard SpaceShipTwo and Lynx will experience about 5 minutes of weightlessness as well, unlike World View's customers, who will never float around inside their sealed gondola. But the space planes won't stay aloft as long as the balloons: SpaceShipTwo's total flight time will be about 2.5 hours (with a chunk of it spent beneath the belly of a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo), while a typical Lynx mission will last about 30 minutes. [Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships]
Making it happen
World View is not starting from scratch. The company is leveraging the technology developed for the StratEx (Stratospheric Exploration) program, which set the record for highest-ever skydive in October 2014 when Google executive Alan Eustace jumped from a balloon 135,908 feet (41,425 m) above the New Mexico desert.
Indeed, MacCallum was StratEx's safety officer, and Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corp., which McCallum co-founded and where he served as CEO for more than 20 years, was the program's prime contractor. (World View CEO Jane Poynter is also a co-founder of Paragon, which is a subcontractor to World View and specializes in developing environmental-control and life-support systems.)
StratEx "was really a foundational project for World View, to run through essentially all the phases of flight that we would have with a capsule, only in a one-person version," MacCallum said. "It was essentially a scale model."
The basic pieces of World View's flight system have therefore mostly been developed, and the work left to do before commercial operations can begin involves adapting, integrating and testing them.
Such efforts are already underway. In February, for example, World View flew a parafoil to an altitude of 102,200 feet (31,150 m), two times higher than the previous record for parafoil flight. The company plans to perform a test drop from 100,000 feet with a 10 percent scale model — that is, a payload that weighs 1,000 lbs. (454 kg) — in the next week or so. A full-scale test drop should follow by the end of the year or early 2016, MacCallum said.
If everything goes well, the first crewed test flights will take place in early to mid-2017, he added, with commercial operations beginning in late 2017.
World View also conducts uncrewed balloon flights for scientific purposes; the company has already lofted payloads for NASA and other customers. The experience gained via these efforts should help the company manage its crewed operations, MacCallum said.
It's unclear when SpaceShipTwo and Lynx will be up and running. SpaceShipTwo has conducted four rocket-powered test flights, but the most recent one, in October 2014, ended in tragedy; the vehicle broke apart in mid-air, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold. The first Lynx test flights could come later this year, XCOR representatives have said.
The 'entry drug' for space tourism?
World View hasn't really begun trying to sell tickets for its stratospheric tours yet, MacCallum said. But he isn't too worried about finding enough takers, citing Virgin Galactic's success in garnering hundreds of deposits for future SpaceShipTwo flights.
"We really don't think that tickets are going to be an issue at this point," MacCallum said. "We think we're going to be limited by the number of operations we safely feel like we can conduct for the first few years, not available people who want to fly."
Indeed, MacCallum believes the space tourism market is big enough for World View, Virgin Galacitc and XCOR to co-exist peacefully and profitably, especially since World View is doing something so different.
"I actually think the balloon experience is probably like the entry drug," MacCallum said. "What's nice about that is, they [customers] have already had the time to contemplate the view, so then when you go do the Virgin Galactic or the XCOR experience, you can enjoy the rocket ride."
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Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.