A U.S. startup cranks up the innovation to create a balloon-powered lounge—making space tourism more accessible, while serving up some legendary views.
In the increasingly crowded space tourism race, billionaire-backed companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic¬ (and their joy rides for celebrities and the ultra-rich) tend to take center stage. But U.S. startup World View is looking to carve out its own niche by making space travel more inclusive and adding a new dimension to the journey with targeted panoramas of some of Earth’s most iconic landmarks.
How? The concept seems straightforward enough: Forget the typical rocket. Instead, a giant balloon lifts the company’s eight-passenger Explorer capsule to the edge of space—a roughly a six- to eight-hour ride that will soar 100,000 feet (30,000 meters) above places like the United States’ Grand Canyon, Egypt’s Giza Pyramids and Kenya’s Serengeti. A massive parasail softens the return for the slowly descending capsule—eliminating the unpleasantness of G-force or turbulence and making the trip suitable for people of varying fitness levels. Another step toward inclusion: The cost of US$50,000 per person is a relative bargain compared to rivals charging as much as US$450,000 per seat.
Yet since World View first launched the project a decade ago, project leaders have been forced to pivot—sometimes dramatically—to make their space travel vision a reality.
One massive challenge was developing balloons that could stand up to the rigors of space travel. The original plan to fill them with hydrogen failed when one balloon exploded in 2017, likely because of a static electricity spark, according to a report by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health. So the team shifted to helium-filled balloons made of thin polyethylene and built in multiple valves that help maintain proper pressure. To ensure the design change would mitigate the risk of another explosion or sudden drop, the team conducted more than 100 test flights—all of which were a success.
“When our balloon gets to stratospheric temperatures, it gets four times stronger,” says Esteban Garcia, World View’s head of manufacturing. “The higher it goes, the stronger it gets.”
World View also needed to create a capsule that could deliver an out-of-this-world passenger experience without breaking the bank. To get that balance just right, the company partnered with U.K. design firm PriestmanGoode. The result is a futuristic-looking hexagon-shaped vessel optimized for pressurization and temperature, eliminating the need for any fancy spacesuits. The team reduced the number of windows to limit the capsule’s weight (a heavier capsule would use more helium to stay afloat and, hence, cost more to operate). Yet each window is large enough to give passengers unobstructed views even when they recline in their seats. The team also installed cameras so travelers can zoom in for a closer look at Earth views on their on-board monitors and added telescopes so they can gaze at stars. And for a true lounge experience, meals and cocktails will be served.
The company is also looking to deliver benefits beyond tourism, partnering with Space Environment Technologies to capture space radiation metrics and other data about Earth’s atmosphere during trips.
The first launch into the upper stratosphere is scheduled for 2024 and interest is skyrocketing. Among the early passengers: The Chainsmokers, making the pop duo the first musical artists to perform at the edge of space. More than 1,000 tickets have already been purchased, and flights that originate from the Grand Canyon spaceport have sold out for the first year—making World View the most sought-after space tourism initiative to date, says company president and CEO Ryan Hartman.
“This means 1,000 new people will be able to enjoy majestic views of both Earth and space for an adventure that’s never been this accessible to humanity,” he says.
The ultimate goal? Turn space tourism into Earth activism—inspiring people to want to protect the planet.