See the World From 100,000 Feet
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.