The overwhelming majority of humans will never be able to afford flights to space, but World View Enterprises is hoping that its stratospheric balloon ride, at a fraction of the cost of SpaceX or Blue Origin trips, will offer a very space-like experience for its customers.
It’s been a minute since we last heard anything about World View’s plan to take people into the stratosphere. The Arizona-based company made a minor course correction by turning its attention to uncrewed balloons, called stratollites, capable of delivering imaging and communications equipment to high altitudes for weeks at a time. But as a company press release from yesterday revealed, World View is back in the space tourism game.
Of course, balloons can’t actually go into space, but they can ascend high enough that the curvature of Earth and the darkness of space are clearly visible. The company hopes that its offering, in which a massive balloon, or parafoil, lifts a passenger capsule to a height of nearly 19 miles (30 km), will capture a distinctly space-like experience.
“At 100,000 feet you have a spectacular panoramic view of Earth’s surface. With this wide-angle view, you will clearly see the curvature of Earth and the ‘thin blue line’ of Earth’s atmosphere,” according to the company FAQ. “Also, because you will be higher than the thickest parts of the atmosphere, you will be enveloped in the darkness of space. Your horizon will stretch into the distance more than 1,000 miles in every direction. “
A generally agreed-upon boundary for space is the Kármán Line, which is located 62 miles (100 km) above sea level. World View’s balloon will go nowhere near space, but that’s not preventing the company from fitting its offering into the space tourism sector. That said, World View isn’t really trying to compete with the bona fide space tourism ventures, namely Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX. It would be more accurate to say that, to a certain extent, World View is trying to step on their toes.
For one, World View plans to charge $50,000 per person, a cost that “is noticeably lower than any other civilian space tourism flight available today,” according to the company. Again, not space, but okay. That’s still a lot of money, but it pales in comparison to the expected $25 million ticket price for a ride aboard SpaceX’s CrewDragon. At auction, Blue Origin sold a seat for $28 million, while Virgin Galactic plans to charge $450,000. In its statement, World View said it would provide flexible financing options for its customers, and it’s currently accepting $500 deposits. The $50,000 price tag is akin to buying a very expensive car, and a lot of people might find this experience to be worth it.
Time is another advantage, as flights to the stratosphere will last six to 12 hours. This will allow the eight passengers and two crew members to hang out, enjoy the view, and even partake in libations—without the thrill zero gravity, however. The capsule will include a bathroom, which is good news for those hoping to join the very exclusive 19-mile-high club.
World View wants to initially launch its balloons from the Grand Canyon, but the company has ambitions to include other stunning departure points, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Serengeti in Kenya, the Amazon in Brazil, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, and the Great Wall of China in Mongolia. Those are great, but an ascent with a view of the Aurora Borealis in Norway is, in my estimation, the most spectacular of the planned offerings.
Another advantage has to do with physical accessibility. A violent, high-acceleration rocket launch would be replaced by a gentle lift to the stratosphere and a soft landing on the ground. Services animals will also be permitted to join the flight.
The company says it has many safety measures in place:
From the design of the spaceflight capsule to the helium-filled zero-pressure balloon flight system and the patented parafoil landing system, safety at every step is our primary objective. We have also designed several redundant safety measures if any of the primary safety measures malfunction during flight. For instance, if the parafoil system fails during landing, we also have a backup parachute system that would be deployed to gently slow and land the capsule. [...]
For many years, World View flights have used high-altitude zero-pressure balloons, which means that the pressure inside the balloon is equal to the pressure outside the balloon. In the event of a puncture, leak or hole, the balloon would not “pop” and cause a sudden freefall. Instead, the outcome would be very benign: helium would slowly leak out of the balloon and the balloon and capsule would eventually start to slowly lose altitude. Even if there was a large tear in the balloon, it would take several hours for the balloon to slowly float to the ground. Additionally, because World View balloons are filled with helium, a safe, non-flammable gas, we eliminate the risk of explosion.
The company is still finalizing its design, and it needs to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. Speaking to SpaceNews, Ryan Hartman, chief executive of World View, said the company would ideally like to perform 100 launches a year, but that’ll depend on the launch points and local weather conditions. The inaugural flight could happen in 2024, which has already been chartered by the not-for-profit group Space For Humanity.
All this said, World View may have some company up there in the stratosphere. Space Perspective, a company owned by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum—both co-founders of World View—is currently working on a similar offering, though with a price tag closer to $125,000 per passenger.