US firm is taking space tourism to luxurious new heights

A US firm is taking space tourism to luxurious new heights, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 April, 2014, 8:26am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 6:03pm

The prize is the panoramic curvature of the earth against the starry scenery of space, but passengers on the HK$550,000-per-ticket World View Experience trip to the edge of space won't have to keep the privileged view to themselves.

In-flight internet access is guaranteed for all "citizen space explorers" who make the gas balloon-powered trip, which from 2016 will take paying passengers on suborbital flights.

World View's Director of Flight Crew Operations is former Nasa Space Shuttle commander Mark Kelly, who flew four missions and has spent more than 54 days in space. Voyagers in a fully pressurised flight capsule will be slowly lifted to 32 kilometres up by a massive proprietary gas balloon called the ParaWing for a life-changing vista of earth. The five-hour flight from the US state of Arizona is open to all; no special training or spacesuit will be required.

The capsule will carry eight passengers, with two seats in each viewing bay. There will even be a lavatory and refreshments on board.

"The interior of the capsule itself will include world-class, luxury design elements that accentuate the view outside," says British-born entrepreneur Jane Poynter, CEO of World View, who from 1991-93 famously spent two years and 20 minutes in a sealed artificial world called Biosphere 2, an earth systems science research facility at the University of Arizona.

"The capsule will also be equipped with internet access, allowing passengers to capture photos and video for sharing on social media," she says.

World View promises the very best view of our planet. "The panoramic windows will give true colour, which is important given the first-hand accounts from people who have flown to this altitude of extraordinary and indescribable colour schemes," Poynter says.

World View isn't the only company planning on getting ahead of the curve. Spain's Zero2Infinity has also unveiled a tourism concept called Bloon, a helium-filled balloon designed to carry a pressurised capsule holding four passengers and two pilots to the stratosphere and back. It's also planning a take-off in 2016, with tickets going for HK$1.2 million.

So far, space tourism has been all about rocket-propelled but reusable suborbital space planes, with the likes of Virgin Galactic, Space Exploration Corporation (which operates the two-seater XCOR Lynx Mark II) and Space Adventures (using a suborbital commercial rocket built by Armadillo Aerospace) offering tickets for HK$1.9 million, HK$775,500 and HK$791,000, respectively.

So is it worth shopping around? Although hardly affordable for most of us, space tourism could go mass market. "It represents the next step in travel experiences," Poynter says. "We're living through a pivotal point in history where space is becoming increasingly accessible."

The US-based Federal Aviation Administration expects space tourism to become a US$1 billion industry during the next decade, but does that necessarily exclude most of us? "As technology improves, prices will decrease, making the dream of space flight a reality for more people than ever before," Poynter argues.

Space tourism as a product has tremendous potential. "People are always looking to push their boundaries," says David Philips, operations manager at Explorers Astronomy Tours which puts together astronomy-related travel itineraries for nature-lovers to see total solar eclipses in remote areas of the globe. "Currently, the polar regions are seen as the ultimate destination so the next step has to be into space," he says. "It's a growing and increasingly competitive market, which must improve the choice and affordability for those seeking an out-of-this-world experience." Philips will add earth-gazing to his itineraries as soon as safety is assured.

Whether all trips upwards qualify as space tourism is open to debate. It's largely a question of height. The International Space Station orbits the planet at a fixed height of 400 kilometres, and few are suggesting that space tourists gets anywhere near it. It's not stopped some discussing the possibility of trips to the ISS in the future (talk to Space Adventures if you're keen), and even orbiting hotels, but for now the 112 kilometres that the likes of Virgin Galactic and XCOR are aiming for is the upper limit. True orbital flights will have to wait many years.

The balloons of both World View and Zero2Infinity will rise to about 32 kilometres, a few kilometres shy of where Austrian daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner famously dived back to earth from in October 2012. Technically, the earth's atmosphere stretches out to about 100 kilometres, which is where scientists put the fabled Kármán line, the official division between the planet and space.

So is 32 kilometres up really high enough? "It most certainly is," Poynter says. "World View will take passengers on a voyage to the edge of space where they will be able to see the curvature of the earth against the backdrop of a vast, black, beautiful and star-studded universe." It's this unparalleled perspective shift that creates what space philosopher and writer Frank White calls the "overview effect", the emotional reaction in an astronaut - and, soon, a space tourist - that comes from seeing earth suspended in space. "This is a sight that previously has only been afforded to astronauts and will help people realise our connection to our home planet and to the universe around us," Poynter says.

"Although [32 kilometres] high is not technically 'in space', passengers would certainly experience the curvature of the earth and the darkness above them," Philips says, although he's not convinced there are purely astronomical reasons for travel into space. "The light within the cabin coupled with reflected light of the earth would make astronomical observation almost impossible, but observing the earth, the thinness of the atmosphere and the blackness of space beyond would be an extraordinary experience," he says. Just don't forget your binoculars.

Despite World View's efforts, rocket-propelled space flight is perhaps the ultimate dream of many; the chance to travel at supersonic speeds and experience even a few moments of weightlessness would appear closest to the exploits of Nasa astronauts. However, such trips come with many risks and annoyances as well as a higher price. It's necessary to go through long training to cope with G-force, and the time spent in space is as little as a few minutes. There's a long waiting list, too; Virgin Galactic currently has more than 600 paying customers signed up, while its SpaceShip Two craft has only six passengers seats.

High-altitude ballooning into near-space has distinct advantages over rocket-based trips. While just as dangerous, gently floating up into near-space requires no training. "Both styles of near-space travel have their place," says Philips. "We all have an idea or dream of what space flight should involve and how it should feel, and I think that the drama and excitement of a Virgin Galactic type 'launch' would come close to the dream."

However, he thinks that the slow ascent in a capsule beneath a balloon would have the advantage of a calmer ascent stage and much greater time spent at altitude. "Ultimately, the cost and relative safety concerns would affect the saleability of either type of travel," he says.

Whichever way you choose to get to space, it's sure to change you forever. It's perhaps the emotional punch of the overview effect that explains why the embryonic space tourism industry is so friendly, despite the anticipated astronomical profits in the long term. "At this point, none of us in this industry consider one another 'competition' because we're working towards the same goal of growing this industry and making space travel accessible to the masses," Poynter says.