When Alan Eustace lifted off into space from the New Mexico desert this past October, it was with a quiet whoosh, and a slight jostle of his harness. The 57-year-old computer scientist from Google—outfitted in a 260-pound pressurized space suit—dangled solo from a polyethylene balloon as thin as a dry-cleaning bag. As the balloon rose steadily into the air, the small bubble of helium inside began to expand, and with each mile the balloon changed shape. At first it undulated skyward, limp and oblong, like a jellyfish. Then it grew into a soft, bulbous teardrop. Finally, as Eustace neared his destination, 25 miles above the planet’s surface, it became perfectly firm and rounded, a shimmering object the size of a football stadium. Above him spanned the blackness of space. Beneath him lay what has long drawn humans to these heights: the soul-altering view of the curvature of Earth.
To most, Eustace’s flight seemed the antithesis of space travel, which since the dawn of the space age has been synonymous with the fiery roar of a rocket. The first private companies racing to take paying customers to the edge of space—Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and Blue Origin—promise the kind of thrill ride experienced by astronauts. But there’s an alternate space race taking shape, one whose selling point is slow and serene. A handful of startups are rushing to pioneer tourist trips to the stratosphere beneath enormous balloons. “Balloons are a beautiful mechanism for taking off,” Eustace says. “You’re perfectly balanced; it’s perfectly quiet; there’s no vibration as you’re going up.” Once at altitude, passengers will drift with the winds as they peer from the comfort of a pressurized capsule. After a few hours, they will glide back to Earth beneath a wing-shaped parafoil.
“It’s going to be the ultimate Facebook status update: the entire family in space.”
For one company, Eustace’s StratEx mission was proof of principle—a “one-man version” of stratospheric balloon tourism, says Taber MacCallum. He and his partner, Jane Poynter, headed Paragon Space Development Corporation, which managed Eustace’s flight plan and built his life-support system. The couple then started World View Experience, a Tucson, Arizona, operation that intends to be the first to take customers to 100,000 feet, or 19 miles, for $75,000 a head. They project the maiden flight will take place by 2017.
Zero2Infinity in Barcelona and Chinese startup Space Vision also anticipate flying passengers in the next few years. They are selling tickets for about $125,000 and $80,000, respectively. The fees are steep, but not when compared with $250,000 for a seat on Virgin Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane, or the $50 million broker Space Adventures charges for a weeklong jaunt to the International Space Station.
Altogether, balloons could offer a more inclusive form of space tourism. “It’s a very slow, gentle ride up and a slow, gentle ride back, and you get to be up there for hours,” MacCallum says. Without the gravitational forces of takeoff and landing, the flight comes with minimal health restrictions. Motion sickness is unlikely to be an issue. Couples might get married in near-space, or celebrate a grandparent’s birthday. World View is already taking $7,500 deposits to secure seats on future flights. “We’ve had families sign up and buy the whole capsule,” MacCallum says. “You can take your parents and children. It’s going to be the ultimate Facebook status update: the entire family in space.”
In 2002, two years before Scaled Composites claimed the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight, Zero2Infinity’s founder, José Mariano López-Urdiales, wrote a paper for grad school entitled “The Role of Balloons in the Future Development of Space Tourism.” In it, he calculated stratospheric ballooning could be a $10 billion-a-year industry. Much of the technology required to send tourists to such altitudes—the balloons, the helium fuel, the pressurized capsules—had been well proved, López-Urdiales noted. It’s also relatively affordable and easy to procure.
Rocket flight, in contrast, is both costly and difficult. The public got a stark reminder of that this past fall, when Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo exploded over the Mojave Desert, killing a test pilot. “When you light a rocket, 10,000 things can happen, and only one of them is good,” says Michael López-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who recently signed on to advise Zero2Infinity. With balloons, he says, “you’re not going as fast, you’re not going as high, you’re not putting as much energy into the system.”
Whereas Virgin Galactic plans to soar to nearly 330,000 feet—just past the 62-mile mark widely considered the threshold of space—balloons will top out at just over 100,000 feet. The difference is not as significant as it might seem. “At that altitude, you’ve got 99 percent of the atmosphere underneath you,” says former space-shuttle commander Mark Kelly, now the director of flight operations for World View. “You’re essentially in a vacuum. You’re in the blackness of space.” He agrees with López-Alegria that balloons pose less risk. “If you can take the complexity out of getting people to that vantage point,” he says, “at least theoretically you can do it a lot safer.”
The straightforward nature of balloons has long been appealing. In fact, they powered the very first space race. In 1931, a balloon lifted Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer to the stratosphere in a pressurized capsule, a feat described in the August 1931 issue of Popular Science as an “adventure [that] surpasses fiction.” As we wrote then: “Seventeen hours later, after being given up for dead, they returned safely from an altitude of more than 52,000 feet, almost ten miles, shattering every aircraft altitude record.” New records continued to be set and broken through the 1950s. And then in 1960, U.S. Air Force Capt. Joe Kittinger rose to 102,800 feet. His record stood for 52 years—until October 2012, when Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner ascended to 128,100 feet. Eustace passed Baumgartner’s milestone two years later, reaching 135,890 feet.
Like Kittinger and Baumgartner before him, Eustace floated briefly in the stratosphere, taking in a view he calls “marvelous.” As he remembers now, “It’s beautiful watching how the light diffuses through the different levels of the atmosphere.” And then Eustace released his balloon and fell back to Earth protected by only his space suit. His body reached 822 miles per hour, exceeding the speed of sound, before the atmosphere thickened and a parachute deployed to slow his descent. To succeed at ushering in a new form of balloon-based tourism, companies will have to figure out a way to get customers not only up, but also down.
A balloon ride to the stratosphere will be a three-part act: the launch, the pleasant cruise at altitude, and the trip back to Earth. The first part should be straightforward. For its commercial flights, World View plans to use a balloon that’s more than 400 feet in diameter—the same size as the one that carried Eustace. (Though it will be towing a 9,000-pound tourist capsule, the balloon doesn’t need to ascend as high.) Because of the StratEx mission, World View’s team has practice launching it.
Zero2Infinity has been launching unmanned balloons as a test for two different business ventures: stratospheric tourism and a commercial satellite delivery system. It’s also designed a doughnut-shaped craft that it plans to adapt for both applications. The version that will carry tourists, called a Bloon, will be big enough to hold two pilots and four passengers. The company has so far built a prototype half that size and used it to send a small humanoid robot to near-space. (“In the old days it would have been a dog or a monkey,” López-Urdiales says.) Equipped with cameras and sensors, the robot helped the engineers at Zero2Infinity understand the passenger experience. When the robot looked through the windows, which ring the outside wall, reflections marred the view. As a result, the window’s position will likely change, López-Urdiales says.
World View envisions an oblong capsule with viewing ports on each side. About the size of a small Winnebago, it will have seats for six passengers, a pilot, and a crew member. Passengers will need to be buckled in for liftoff and landing, but most of the ride will be a casual sail, like a skiff gliding across the surface of a lake in a light breeze. Although winds at 100,000 feet can reach 130 miles per hour, the high speed won’t be perceptible. That’s because Earth, which provides the only reference point, will appear to barely move. The capsule will have a bar and a bathroom, MacCallum says, and the crew will double as bartenders and tour guides.
Both MacCallum and López-Urdiales agree that balloon tourism should provide a shirtsleeve environment throughout the flight. “The goal is to have no training, no space suits,” MacCallum says. “This will be very similar to a commercial-airline flight, where you’re given a briefing and off you go.” But outside the pressurized capsule, the environment is lethal. Exposure would mean near-instant death. For that reason, the companies will have to decide how to balance comfort with safety in the event of an emergency.
The capsule will have a bar and a bathroom, MacCallum says, and the crew will double as bartenders and tour guides.
“At the very least the pilot should be wearing a space suit,” says Art Thompson, whose aerospace company, Sage Cheshire, built the pressurized capsule that carried Baumgartner to the stratosphere. “If you have an issue with the craft, you want the pilot to be able to be in control.” The smartest strategy, Thompson says, might be to convince tourists to wear suits too. Of course, space suits require training, and looking like an astronaut might not have as much appeal as being able to easily sip a cocktail or hold your kid’s hand at 100,000 feet. At this point, the companies just seem to be banking on their ability to get the capsule down if a problem is detected—no awkward garments or free-fall skills required.
The third phase of the journey, the return, will be the most difficult. So World View is now heavily focused on refining the parafoils that will deliver the capsules to Earth. “We want to have enough cross-range to be able to fly to an airstrip and gently land in a predetermined place,” MacCallum says. “Doing that from 100,000 feet has never been done.” Because the air at that altitude is so thin, many doubted it was possible. But the company has now flown unmanned parafoils from 100,000 feet three times, each with a payload of about 100 pounds. This summer they plan to step it up by a factor of 10, testing the GPS-guided system with a 1,000-pound payload over the southwestern United States. “Assuming all that goes well, by the end of this year we’ll be at full-scale flight with a 9,000-pound capsule and commensurately large parafoil,” MacCallum says.
One focus of Zero2Infinity’s upcoming flights, also scheduled for this year, will be to test the high-speed telemetry link that will beam live video down from the capsule. Another arm of the company focuses on developing huge parafoils that could act as rescue systems for traditional aircraft. While they would be much larger than the ones eventually used for tourist capsules, having two applications for the technology accelerates the development while reducing the risk and cost, López-Urdiales says.
During tourist trips, the parafoils will be guided at least partially by pilots, and so both companies will need to conduct manned test flights. Some of those test pilots will likely be former NASA astronauts. Kelly says that people who have flown the space shuttle, like him, won’t be starting from scratch. The shuttle was also a glider that made an unpowered descent. Similar to a parafoil and a capsule, it encountered a lot of drag for the amount of lift it could create. To train, Kelly will spend time this summer jumping out of airplanes and learning to fly a small parafoil. Though he’s in charge of assembling a team of World View pilots, he expects that he’ll complete at least some of the early manned test flights himself, as well as serve as pilot on the first commercial trip to the stratosphere.
The simplicity of World View’s vision—at least compared with rocket flight—is what attracted Kelly to the project, he says. Potential tourists will likewise be drawn for the same reason, in hopes of experiencing the same payoff. Before he went to space for the first time, Kelly was sure the most remarkable thing would be floating in zero gravity. “That wasn’t the case,” he says now. “The biggest takeaway is looking at the planet with your own eyes—a round ball just floating there in the cosmos.”
The Ride of Your Life
Space tourism will offer different experiences, depending on the cost of a ticket—and your taste for adventure. Here are two.
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.
This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Wish You Were Here.”