Companies Selling Balloon Rides Into Outer Space

Forget rockets: Two companies want to sell you a ride into space via balloon.

ByABC News
October 23, 2013, 9:04 AM

Oct. 23, 2013 -- Two new space-tourism ventures want to sell you a ticket to the stars. But neither one would use a rocket. Both would use balloons.

Starting in 2016, World View Enterprises of Arizona hopes to send six passengers at a time up 19 miles to the edge of space, aboard helium-filled balloons. Each passenger would pay $75,000, company spokesperson Deanna Wilke tells ABC News.

The six passengers (plus two pilots) would occupy a 4-ton capsule roomy enough for them to stand up, move around and enjoy the view. There would be food service and a restroom. Because the capsule would be pressurized, says Wilke, there would be no need for flight suits or oxygen masks.

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"It's about as benign an environment as there could be," she says. "You could walk around, have snacks and enjoy a beverage of your choice. The accommodations are planned to be quite luxurious. It wouldn't be strapping yourself to a rocket and being thrust into space."

Technically, you would not be in space, which starts at 62 miles up.

Unlike planes or rockets, balloons are displacement vessels. To float, they displace air, the same way a boat displaces water. Run out of air, and there's nothing left to displace. When a balloon hits the outmost reaches of the atmosphere, it stops ascending.

At 19 miles up, says Wilke, you would not experience weightlessness. But you'd be more than high enough to see the curvature of the earth. And you'd have saved yourself a handsome piece of change: Virgin Galactic is charging $250,000 per person for its rocket flights into space.

How feasible is the balloon idea technically? Quite. In October of last year, beverage maker Red Bull sent daredevil parachutist Felix Baumgartner to 128,000 feet in a balloon.

Debora Fairbrother, chief of the Scientific Balloon Program Office at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, tells ABC News that NASA routinely sends giant balloons up as high as almost 150,000 feet carrying scientific payloads of many thousands of pounds.

Fairbrother, a member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' technical committee on balloons, says the vehicles themselves are not expensive. The biggest ones her office sends aloft—40 million cubic feet (or about five times the displacement of the Zeppelin "Hindenburg") cost $300,000. The helium to fill them, though, is pricey.

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The past three years have seen the price of helium jump from under $65 per thousand cubic feet to $84. Fortune magazine expects the price will rise higher, after the Bureau of Land Management shuts down a major helium reserve in Texas.

Wilke says a roundtrip to the underside of space would take four hours or more: an hour or two to float up to altitude, two hours to linger and enjoy the view, then another half an hour or so to return to earth.

The trip down would be accomplished by parafoil: The capsule would jettison the balloon, then drop, making a controlled descent by means of an overhead inflatable wing.

Zero2Infinity, a company in Barcelona, Spain, is promoting a not dissimilar balloon venture. Their capsule, according to the company's website, would hold six people—four passengers and two pilots. A spokesman for the company told London's Daily Mail, "We can partition off the cabin for those who want more privacy, and we can even serve them Michelin star meals if that's what they want." Cost: just under $153,000.