An artist's rendering depicts a high-performance balloon and pressurized capsule designed by entrepreneurs at Space Perspective, a startup company that plans to send paying customers toward outer space. Image courtesy of Space Perspective
ORLANDO, Fla., June 19 (UPI) -- The newest entry into a growing field of space tourism firms says it will use giant hydrogen balloons launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida -- rather than rockets -- to give passengers a view of the stars from the stratosphere.
At 20 miles up, Space Perspective's observation capsule would reach about one-third of the way to outer space, but passengers could see the blackness above and observe the curvature of the Earth.
The company, which signed an agreement to use NASA facilities, has potential to boost the growing space tourism sector that includes Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
But the new startup's founders said they have funding only to mount a maiden uncrewed test flight, scheduled for early 2021, with the potential for more if that is successful.
"We're designing this to have a very low training requirement, with little more training than a passenger on a commercial jet, to make it as accessible as possible," said Jane Poynter, co-founder and co-CEO with her husband, Taber MacCallum.
Tickets would cost roughly $125,000, Poynter said. By comparison, tickets for Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic are estimated to cost $250,000 for a brief rocket flight 50 miles high. But no space tourism flights have left the ground yet.
Space Perspectives' plan calls for a balloon -- large enough to accommodate a football field inside -- to be sent aloft from the former space shuttle runway.
The capsule beneath, called Neptune, would be 16 feet wide, with an interior to fit nine seats and a restroom.
A parachute would deploy in the event of a problem with the balloon, but the capsule would not have thrusters to steer it. Rather, it would drift with the wind, making monitoring weather forecasts crucial to ensure safety.
"We are confident we can accurately predict where it will go and have recovery ships waiting," MacCallum said.
At 12 mph, the capsule would take two hours to reach cruising level, where it would drift for hours and then descend slowly to a splashdown in the Atlantic Ocean.
Space Perspectives, whose funding rounds were led by a Silicon Valley venture capital firm Base Ventures, rents offices at the space center for a small amount, according to Dale Ketcham of Space Florida, the state agency that arranges commercial leases for NASA.
Poynter and MacCallum previously led a what started out as a space tourism company, World View, which used balloons. But it eventually turned to science and transportation payloads instead of carrying people.
The couple also worked with Alan Eustace, a Google executive who used a balloon to set a world record for the highest parachute dive in 2014.
Employing hydrogen balloons to carry passengers, though, will undoubtedly raise memories of the Hindenburg fire and explosion that killed 36 people in 1937, said Jim Cantrell, a space businessman who helped found SpaceX.
"I don't like the idea of using hydrogen myself," Cantrell said. "You're probably more likely to get killed on one of our freeways than with something like this, but it will require a change in perspective."
Poynter and MacCallum have widespread respect in the space community, though, Cantrell said.
"We just don't know about the success of space tourism in the long run because it hasn't been done. We do know people are lining up to pay deposits on Virgin Galactic tickets," he said.
Poynter and MacCallum's track record suggests they will succeed, said John Spencer, an outer space architect who worked on the International Space Station design.
"There's no issue, in terms of physics or money, that they can't overcome," said Spencer, who heads the non-profit Space Tourism Society, whose mission is to build interest in the sector.
"They are pioneering a whole new regime of space exploration," Spencer said. "The only question is if another big player comes in and beats them to it."
NASA astronaut Douglas Hurley (C) waves to onlookers as he boards a plane at Naval Air Station Pensacola to return him and NASA astronaut Robert Behnken home to Houston a few hours after the duo landed in their SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft off the coast of Pensacola, Fla,, on August 2, 2020. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo