Space tourists could ride this cosmic balloon to the edge of space

Competition in the space tourism industry is heating up, and a new company is taking a unique approach to near-space exploration.

sp-5.jpg

IMAGE: Space Perspective

The prospect of space travel has long-since enchanted humanity. Now, as competition heats up across the burgeoning spaceflight industry, this sci-fi fantasy may soon become reality. The company Space Perspective is offering a unique transport twist on the standard spacefaring business model. Rather than harnessing the latest propulsion technology or rocket busters, the company is using a pressurized cabin and a high-altitude balloon to chauffeur tourists to the cusp of the final frontier. But how much will it cost? Also, why balloons?

Space Perspective was founded by co-CEOs Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum. While a balloon may not immediately strike some as the ideal mode of transport for such an undertaking, the "serial entrepreneurs" behind the company have a rich history of lofty ideas tethered to these buoyant instruments.

Prior to Space Perspective, the pair founded World View Enterprises, a company that uses high-altitude balloons for a host of applications ranging from remote sensing to communication. MacCallum was previously the chief technology and safety officer at StratEx, a project which culminated with Google Executive Alan Eustace's record-setting "space dive" from a balloon at 136,000 feet. The two have parlayed this experience to reimagine the space tourism model.

Space Perspective's balloon-bound capsule, known officially as Spaceship Neptune, is designed to reach an altitude of 100,000 feet, nearly 20 miles above the Earth's surface.

"You're above 99% of the atmosphere. So for all intents and purposes, you're in space, right? We call it the edge of space," said Poynter.

sp-2.jpg

IMAGE: Space Perspective

SEE: NASA's unsung heroes: The Apollo coders who put men on the moon (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Views from the edge of the final frontier

For the full adventure, Spaceship Neptune occupants will need to set aside about six hours. After liftoff, the balloon will slowly make its ascent at a casual speed of about 12 miles per hour. At this rate, it will take about two hours to reach the upper levels up the atmosphere. Once at the apex of its trajectory, the balloon glides along the mere cusp of the final frontier for another two hours, offering occupants incredible views.

"If we can get the passengers up and the flight up to altitude before the sun rises, you might see just the most incredible star scape you've ever seen. And then you will start to see the sunrise over the limb of the earth, and, of course, you'll see the curvature of the earth. You'll see the thin blue line of our atmosphere, you'll see the terminus go across the Earth below you," Poynter said.

SEE: Rural America is in the midst of a mental health crisis. Tech could help some patients see a way forward. (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

The spaceship will slowly make its descent over the course of approximately two hours, before splashing down in the ocean. Although "splashdown" may be a bit of an overstatement. It's important to understand that the Spaceship Neptune design is strikingly dissimilar to the classic reentry capsules used for returning astronauts.

"When you look at a NASA capsule, when it comes in, it almost does a belly flop on the water," Poynter said.

A water landing in Spaceship Neptune should be an exceptionally more pleasant experience, she said. Instead of a blunted flat bottom, the capsule is attenuated like a spinning top; this allows the bottom of the capsule to gently penetrate the surface of the ocean and gradually reduce speed during landing.

"You won't have to brace for impact, it should be pretty comfortable. We're really aiming to make this entire flight really gentle and accessible from beginning to end," Poynter said.

Onboard, the vessel will feature a restroom, a refreshment bar, as well as Wi-Fi, so explorers can snap and share near-space selfies in real time.

Space Perspective

IMAGE: Space Perspective

Test flight and global aspirations

Spaceship Neptune will eventually launch from the Shuttle Landing Facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The company hopes to expand globally in select locations. The ability to take off from land, ride the winds of the upper atmosphere, and then land in water enables the company the ability to scale much more quickly than landing on terra firma.

"Landing on land is very difficult to take that around the world. It turns out that it becomes much more readily expandable around the planet by splashing down, because there [are] many, many locations, spectacular locations where you can launch from land and then splashdown. And it turns out that the winds, the stratospheric winds tend to go east and west depending on the time of year," Poynter said.

The company plans to conduct a test flight of the uncrewed capsule in the first quarter of 2021. The flight will include a full-scale capsule although the test capsule will not be at full mass, according to Poynter.

SEE: Hiring Kit: Computer Research Scientist (TechRepublic Premium)

Human spaceflight industry—a competitive new market

Space Perspective has positioned itself squarely in the middle of the booming human spaceflight market. Competitors Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are developing systems to take humans to suborbital space. Ballpark estimates for Blue Origin spaceflights range between $200,000 and $300,000. Virgin Galactic is charging prospective space tourists $250,000 a pop.

While some reports have listed a firm price for a ride on Spaceship Neptune, Poynter reiterates that a specific dollar amount has not been determined, however, the company is certainly taking the market into consideration.

"We are thinking that it's going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of half the price of the existing suborbital flight ticket providers. So you can do the math as well as anyone, that translates to about $125,000 a seat. But again, we haven't set that price," Poynter said.

sp-3.jpg

IMAGE: Space Perspective

A cosmic shift in attitudes

To date, a rather short list of humans have been fortunate enough to behold such an external view of planet Earth from the vacuums of space. For astronauts, staring back at one's home planet adrift in the cosmos is often a transformative experience. The emotional reaction and lasting impression of this moment is a phenomenon formally known as the Overview Effect.

"When you talk to astronauts about their experience of going to space, they really connect deeply with our planet. And not only the planet as this sort of cradle of humanity where all life exists as we know it, but also that we are all one human family," Poynter said.

Many describe the looking back at their home planet and being struck by the sheer beauty and fragility of Earth. Poynter hopes Spaceship Neptune can help bring this experience to more people in the years ahead.

"The reason that we called the company Space Perspective, is because we want to enable thousands, hundreds of thousands eventually, of people to have the experience of that space perspective, which is the experience of seeing our world as a planet in space. And then what does that mean we do with that experience?" Poynter said.

"We're all leaders in some aspects of our lives," Poynter continued. "So it is then up to each of us to internalize that experience and live our lives according to it." 

Also see