Space Balloon Tourism: The Next Frontier? One Company Thinks So

Dangling from a helium balloon the size of a football field, a button-shaped capsule with big bubble windows on all sides serenely climbs skyward.

You sit comfortably inside, on a seat that would look appropriate in a Land Rover. Street shoes planted on a floor that appears to be hardwood, you order a glass of champagne.

Inside the World View capsule with company president  Dale Hibbs. Photo: Today.com, linked below

 

Why not? You’re going to outer space. And you’re getting there for cheap — this isn’t Blue Origin.

Instead, it’s World View, a new (dramatically less expensive) space tourism venture that gives passengers a refreshed perspective on the blue planet.

World View rendering

Rendering: World View via YouTube

 

“World View exists to inspire, create, and explore new perspectives for a radically improved future,” CEO Ryan Hartman says in a promo video.

 

To do it, the company will try to deliver guests the “Overview Effect” on a relatively long 6-12-hour flight. Onboard the pressurized capsule, passengers will order refreshments and comfortably watch the rest of us scroll past far below.

The ‘Overview Effect’ and World View’s Vision

Self-proclaimed “space philosopher” Frank White coined the term Overview Effect in a 1987 book focusing on the shift in awareness that astronauts often experience after seeing Earth from outer space.

World View rendering

Rendering: World View via YouTube

 

It’s safe to say reverence characterizes the subjects’ new condition.

“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small,” said Neil Armstrong, the first human to stand on the moon.

Earth, viewed from the moon

Photo: NASA via Flickr

 

World View seeks to make the effect available without months of training, millions of thousands of dollars, or a spacesuit. Instead, the zero-pressure balloon facilitates a “gentle” ascent and descent, and the curated capsule targets a first-class passenger-like flight experience.

Price in context

Ticket price? $50,000, which dwarfs the conjectural entry cost for a minutes-long Blue Origin, SpaceX, or Virgin Galactic flight. Each of those has pre-sold at tens of millions of dollars for a seat. Last month, SpaceX sent its first three customers to the International Space Station for a cool $55 million each.

Granted, World View won’t fly nearly as high as these other space tourism ventures. The company says that its balloons can achieve an altitude of “100,000+ feet,” or over 30 kilometres. Blue Origin’s New Shepard program commonly catapults passengers past the 100km Kármán Line, the specified boundary for outer space. SpaceX soars even higher — 575km.

But statistics are not World View’s focus. Instead, the company seeks an accessible, qualitative experience.

Liftoff from Giza, Great Wall, Grand Canyon

Hartman explained that the company’s passengers would “get to experience our Earth and [see] it without borders, without race, and [see] something bigger than themselves.

“And,” he added, “most importantly, I think — [get] to see Earth as a living organism.”

To that end, the company plans various majestic liftoff locations. Because its balloons don’t need a rocket engine-proof launchpad, World View can expand well beyond the Cape Canaveral-to-Houston junket.

The Great Wall of China

World View will launch from the Great Wall of China. Photo: Sofiaworld via Shutterstock.

 

Flights will lift off from the pyramids at Giza, the Amazon rainforest, the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon, and other global icons. Not only that, the company promises various other opportunities to explore the sites. In Amazonia, for example, you can spend five days exploring the world’s biggest rainforest with local guides.

Is it safe?

Let’s say you’ve decided to travel to the upper atmosphere by balloon. The craft generates one obvious safety concern with its very nature. “What happens if the balloon pops or gets punctured?” the website’s FAQ page asks.

World View balloon rendering

Rendering: World View via YouTube.

 

In zero-pressure balloons, the pressure inside the balloon is equal to the pressure outside the balloon. So, the company says,

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.

Apparently, the team has made some changes since this “ground-shaking” explosion in 2017 — echoes of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster. Hydrogen is twice as light as helium, but this highly flammable gas does have its drawbacks.

 

Plastic sandwich wrap

The enormous balloon is also as thin as “plastic sandwich wrap,” according to the company. That’s stimulating to think about, but if you’ve ever seen the capsules from the old Mercury missions, you know that people have long launched themselves into the stratosphere in a craft that doesn’t appear capable of going there.

No matter how you slice it, space tourism is a biscuit you’ve got to risk it for. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sub-orbital program after its pilots deviated from their flight trajectory and entered unauthorized airspace, potentially endangering other aircraft.

If World View succeeds, you won’t get the opportunity to visit the edge of space more cheaply than you will inside its first-class accommodations. First flights launch from the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef in 2024.

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents' evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.


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Alexander Kiefer
Alexander Kiefer
1 month ago

I’ve been waiting for Virtual Reality to get sophisticated enough that a similar experience can be had by anybody…