Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson sent up a trial balloon eight years ago when he forecast the first flight to lift travelers into space within the next one and one-half years. Significant delays have hampered that effort and the first just-for-fun flight into space has yet to happen. Nevertheless, by May of 2013, at least 1,000 travelers had reportedly committed, each paying deposits on their $250,000 total fee. Some well-known “Major Toms” who have delivered deposits include physicist Stephen Hawking and celebrities such as Brad Pitt and spouse Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks (unknown whether his wife, actress Rita Wilson will accompany him), Katy Perry and Ashton Kutcher.
Enter World View Enterprises, which plans to carry passengers to a similar sub-orbital space elevation by 2016. While Virgin Galactic’s eventual flights will carry its spacecrafts (and passengers) aloft using winged, jet-powered motherships, World View plans to use balloons instead, at one-third the price.
Proof of concept for World View was obtained last week when it flew a wing (dubbed a ParaWing) similar to a paraglider from New Mexico’s Roswell International Air Center, breaking an altitude record in the process. The test lifted a scale model of the spacecraft to 120,000 feet and confirmed the full breadth of the space flight system.
The “World View Experience” promised by the Tucson, Arizona space balloon company will lift travelers “to the very threshold of the heavens.” The $75,000-per-ticket capsule flights will commence with the inflation of a helium balloon. The craft will then take two hours ascending to an apogee 19 miles above Earth. At that altitude, the company says their craft will be clear of 99 percent of the planet’s atmosphere and will remain there two more hours. From this cosmic perch, travelers will view their planet from large windows, imbibe in their favorite beverage or send images to family and friends with assistance from the capsule’s on-board internet system.
When the time arrives to descend from the edge of space, helium will be discharged from the balloon and the ParaWing will be released, gliding the passengers and crew back to terra firma. The total time in flight will be five to six hours.
Company literature describes the interior of the capsule as stylish and comfortable, but promising a unique and thrilling experience “one that for more than half a century has been reserved solely for astronauts.”
World View Enterprises now projects 2016 as the year of the first flight with paying customers. Whether this happens remains to be seen, but the timetable for tests is ahead of schedule and the first test launch – originally scheduled for 2016 – has already happened.
The Wright Brothers, of course, are credited with inventing, building and flying the first airplane in 1903. However, human flight was actually born 120 years earlier, when Jacques Charles and Nicolas-Louis Robert floated aloft in France by a gas-filled balloon. In the most recent decades, the relatively simply technology offered by balloons has provided science with copious research data, as well as invaluable views of Earth. World View Enterprises describes high-altitude ballooning as a reliable, durable and dependable mode of exploring the edge of space.
Ultimately, whichever mode (balloon, rocket or some hybrid) lifts the first travelers into space will be irrelevant. The age of going into space for fun appears imminent.
By Gregory Baskin