See the World From 100,000 Feet

Fea­tures

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY MARK BE­TAN­COURT

As­cend in a richly ap­pointed cap­sule for a view fit for an as­tro­naut. Cham­pagne, any­one?

COM­PA­NIES ON BOTH SIDES OF THE AT­LANTIC ARE BUILD­ING CAP­SULES TO CARRY YOU INTO THE STRATO­SPHERE.

THE SIX PAS­SEN­GERS AR­RIVE at the launch pad a few hours be­fore dawn. They watch as the gi­ant bal­loon, its ma­te­rial thin as a hair’s breadth, is filled with he­lium un­til it tow­ers over their lit­tle cap­sule. The pi­lot and copi­lot re­peat the safety pro­ce­dures: Buckle your safety belt dur­ing launch and land­ing, no smok­ing in the lava­tory. The pas­sen­gers strap in, the hatch is sealed, and the cap­sule and bal­loon are re­leased. Two hours later, they’re in what looks to most peo­ple like outer space.

By the time it stops ris­ing, the bal­loon has ex­panded to about 40 mil­lion cu­bic feet, the size of a foot­ball sta­dium. It floats in the top of the sen­si­ble at­mos­phere like an ice cube in a glass of wa­ter; it drifts slightly, but to the pas­sen­gers, it feels vir­tu­ally sta­tion­ary. There’s no en­gine roar, no hum­ming ma­chin­ery; the cap­sule is as quiet as a li­brary. A gourmet break­fast is served, per­haps with mi­mosas from the bar. A few pas­sen­gers slip on head­phones to en­joy their own sound­tracks for the sunrise. Even af­ter the sun emerges from be­hind the blue-rimmed curve of Earth, at 100,000 feet, stars are vis­i­ble in the black sky.

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours of float­ing, it’s time to come home. The pi­lot flips a switch and the cap­sule de­taches from the bal­loon, float­ing leisurely back to Earth un­der a para­chute.

You can make a reser­va­tion to­day for a trip just like this. And although it won’t hap­pen this year, or even next, soon you can be­come a mem­ber of a very elite group: those who have trav­eled to the top of the strato­sphere.

Two com­pa­nies are do­ing their best to get you there. Tuc­son, Ari­zona-based World View Ex­pe­ri­ence in­cludes the founders of Paragon, a com­pany that builds en­vi­ron­men­tal con­trol sys­tems for space­craft—and the pres­sure suit worn by Google ex­ec­u­tive Alan Eus­tace last year when he set the world al­ti­tude record for skydiving: 135,890 feet. Span­ish com-

At 20 miles above Earth (op­po­site), stars shine at high noon and the hori­zon curves gen­tly away. Air­lin­ers can’t get you there, but one day soon a World View cap­sule (con­cept, right) might. pany Zero2in­fin­ity was founded by José Mar­i­ano López-ur­diales, an aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer for­merly with Boe­ing’s ad­vanced Phan­tom Works di­vi­sion, the Euro­pean Space Re­search and Tech­nol­ogy Cen­ter, and other dis­tin­guished design bu­reaus. LópezUr­diales be­gan in­ves­ti­gat­ing bal­loon stra­to­tourism years be­fore the 2004 X Prize-win­ning flight of Space­shipone. Nei­ther com­pany can of­fer a trip to space—in the United States you’re not con­sid­ered an as­tro­naut un­til you’ve cleared an al­ti­tude of 50 miles, well above the bal­loon trip’s ceil­ing—but they’re bet­ting that nearspace can of­fer a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. For the past two years both com­pa­nies have been test­ing and re­fin­ing their con­cepts, us­ing un­manned bal­loons to take up small sci­en­tific pay­loads, mostly com­mer­cial satel­lite el­e­ments for test­ing in near-space. Both are tak­ing mod­est de­posits on the ticket price, with the as­sur­ance that in or around 2017, tick­ethold­ers will be given a time win­dow for their trip to the strato­sphere.

Back in 2012, when Zero2in­fin­ity was the only out­fit work­ing on stratospheric tourism, the com­pany talked to Paragon about pro­vid­ing the life sup­port sys­tem for its cap­sule. Paragon sur­prised many by ter­mi­nat­ing the re­la­tion­ship, and a few months later be­gan de­scrib­ing a prod­uct sim­i­lar to Zero2in­fin­ity’s: World View. An­nelie Schoen­maker, who han­dles ex­ter­nal re­la­tions for Zero2in­fin­ity, claims there’s no bad blood about this—the com­pany eas­ily found another sup­plier—plus, the pres­ence of com­peti­tors can be en­cour­ag­ing to in­vestors. “It’s re­as­sur­ing,” she says; “it means that peo­ple see that this is a real busi­ness, that this is some­thing that re­ally is a good idea. It would be wor­ry­ing if no­body was copy­ing you.” She should be happy then that a Chi­nese com­pany re­cently an­nounced that it will be­gin test­ing a cap­sule for stra­to­tourism, though the an­nounce­ment was light on de­tails.

De­spite the in­ti­mate con­nec­tion be­tween Wo rl d Vi e w an d Zero2in­fin­ity at the start, the com­pet­ing cap­sules have dif­fer­ences in their de­signs. In ad­di­tion to the two pi­lots, World View’s seats six pas­sen­gers; Zero2in­fin­ity’s seats four. World View’s cap­sule re­sem­bles a trun­cated air­plane fuse­lage, a tried-and-true ap­proach to high al­ti­tudes; Zero2in­fin­ity’s is shaped like a dough­nut, which al­lows the cap­sule to be re­in­forced in the mid­dle so out­ward-fac­ing pas­sen­gers can gaze out the wrap­around win­dows with­out turn­ing their heads.

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