Giant balloon to lift tourists to the outer edge of the atmosphere

2014-07-03 00:00

PEOPLE will from 2016 be able to look at Earth from 36 kilometres up — right at the outer edge of the atmosphere where space begins. And they will be in a capsule attached to a giant balloon at just over R800 000 a pop.

Tucson-based World View Enterprises last week launched the flight from ­Roswell, New Mexico.

Company CEO Jane Poynter said the system broke the world record for highest parafoil flight, lifting a payload to 36 kilometres. “It went really, really, really well,” Poynter said. “Actually, the guys hit the ball out of the park. We’re thrilled.”

The system uses a balloon similar to that used to lift Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner when he made a world record-breaking 38-kilometre skydive in 2012. That flight also launched from the Roswell airport.

Poynter said last week’s flight was the first time all the components were tested together. It used a balloon about third the size of that planned for passenger flight to lift a payload of about one 10th of what will be used to carry passengers.

World View Enterprises is planning to begin its $75 000 (R806 000) per-person flights in 2016, Poynter said. The balloons will lift a capsule carrying six passengers and two crew, where they will float under a parafoil for about two hours before floating back down to Earth. The capsule will be big enough for the passengers to walk around.

The selling point is the view of the Earth and seeing its curve, the company said. Other space-tourism ventures under development will rocket passengers the full 100 kilometres into space, but on much shorter flights.

The height that the World View balloon reached is within Earth’s stratosphere, about 19 kilometres higher than any commercial airliners reach.

Spaceport is also where Virgin Galactic plans to launch its first space-tourism flights in SpaceShipTwo, which can carry six passengers and two pilots at a cost of $200 000 (R2,1 million) per passenger. A traveller on a Virgin Galactic flight would first be jetted into space and then have the opportunity to experience weightlessness.

Space Expedition Corporation Lynx Mark II also plans to commercially send a passenger and a pilot to the edge of the atmosphere.

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