You board the capsule a couple of hours before dawn. The monstrous polyethelyne balloon that will lift you into the stratosphere towers in the air above. You choose a seat, but it doesn't really matter—they all swivel for a 360-degree view. After a five-minute briefing from the pilot, a former astronaut, the craft begins to rise.
The ascent is slow and steady, averaging about 11 mph. You barely feel it. As the helium inside the balloon expands, the shape transforms from a long, thin teardrop into a taut, rounded object. After an hour and a half, the balloon reaches 100,000 feet. You're free to walk around, use the restroom, or have a cocktail.
The craft drifts at this altitude. Its movement is gentle; the pilots refer to it as "sailing." They point out constellations and planets. Soon, the sunrise begins, illuminating the winding scar of the Grand Canyon 19 miles below. Your pilot describes his own first experience with the so-called overview effect, the emotional shift in perspective that comes with gazing down at Earth. You pull out your phone and snap a picture, a selfie from the stratosphere.
After two hours, the pilot vents helium from the balloon to begin a descent. He then sets the balloon free, leaving the capsule hanging from a 100-foot-wide parasail. It begins a directed glide. The wind pushed the balloon several hundred miles, and the parafoil will make up most of that distance on the return. The pilot's attention is focused on flying—this is the part of the trip he has trained for. The sensation is similar to being in a small, perfectly silent airplane. The swooping descent takes less than an hour, delivering you to an airfield four to five hours after you lifted off.
You're secured into the passenger seat of the Lynx suborbital spaceplane, seconds from takeoff. You've passed your medical examination and spent two days training, learning tricks of the trade like shallow breathing to handle G-forces. Though the cabin is pressurized, you're wearing a pressure suit as backup. Air traffic control speaks through the radio in your helmet. "Cleared for takeoff. Three…two…one. Ignition."
The four rocket boosters in the plane's tail ignite, and the spacecraft roars off the runway. In 60 seconds you're at supersonic speeds, although from inside the cockpit you can't really tell. All you know is that you're going fast. You tilt back as the Lynx's nose rises, hurtling up through the atmosphere at an 75-degree angle. The altimeter clicks upward toward 330,000 feet, and the surface of Earth fades away.
Then, suddenly, it's just you, the pilot, and the blackness of space. Gravity doesn't seem to tug at your arms anymore, and you can see far beyond the curvature of Earth. You're weightless. The pilot adjusts the boosters to keep you on track, but this is your time to take in the view.
After about five minutes, you begin to descend. The force of gravity returns, stronger than before. Re-entry is swift and hard. At its greatest, you feel the pressure of four times gravity's pull. The force lessens as the Lynx grips the atmosphere, and soon you're at cruising altitude. The spacecraft feels more like a commercial plane now, and the landing gear lowers as you make a final approach. After your 30-minute ride you touch down, back where you started.