Balloons, not rockets, may be the future for commercial space flight, and Space Perspective is leading the charge
Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic pushed the space tourism business into the spotlight last July with their respective CEOs’ flashy flights to suborbital space atop massive, rumbling rockets. Another competitor is entering the field, however, with safer, gentler, cheaper, longer, more accessible spaceflights, and it has thrown out the conventional rockets in favor of a simpler vehicle: balloons.
Space Perspective was founded in 2019 by Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, both now co-CEOs of the company. Their goal was to offer more ordinary people an opportunity to see the Earth from the edge of its atmosphere and witness the iconic experience of the “space perspective” astronauts have described so reverently for decades, hence the company’s name. For $125,000, a price just over a quarter of Virgin Galactic’s, individuals can ascend to over 100,000 feet in a capsule held by a balloon.
“I remember very clearly the day,” Poynter said, “I was standing in my office and Taber walked in and asked, ‘What do you think about taking people to space under an enormous balloon?’ I was like, ‘That’s it. That’s exactly it. That’s what we’re going to do.’ It reimagined spaceflight.”
Whereas Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos spent only a few minutes enjoying the view at the apex of their flights, Space Perspective’s customers purchase a six-hour trip, with two hours spent ascending, two hours floating in space and two hours descending. That’s only the initial model, though. As Poynter explained, there are no technical limitations inhibiting it from potentially extending the flight time for different customers.
The balloon’s capsule, Spaceship Neptune, which holds eight passengers and a pilot, is designed to be luxurious. Plush, reclining seats are situated in front of 360-degree panoramic, non-glare windows to allow for photography. The main deck includes a bar lined with beverages of the passengers’ choice and a wifi connection, livestream enabled, with a bathroom one level below.
Those who get queasy at the thought of a high velocity rocket flight may find the 12 mph ascent of Spaceship Neptune more accommodating. The balloon atop the capsule slowly fills with gas from liftoff until inflating to the size of a football stadium, whereupon it rides back to Earth at the same speed and splashes down softly in the water, where a ship is waiting to pull it to shore.
The first commercially available flight is supposed to launch near the end of 2024. Since ticket sales went public in June, over 400 people have bought seats on Spaceship Neptune, a response so overwhelming Poynter said all of the planned flights for the first two years are booked.
“I’ve had a passion for adrenalin-based experiences since I was a young child, witnessing a fighter jet take to the skies in a hammerhead at age five,” said Luke Hepworth, a self-described adventure philanthropist who bought a ticket with Space Perspective. “I was hooked. From that moment I thought I must experience this one day. I’ve flown in L39 fighter jets and a MIG 29, HALO jumped from 29,000 feet along with countless other adventures, so the next progression I feel is to take to the stratosphere with Space Perspective. Following this, I’ll be heading up on a suborbital flight with Virgin Galactic.”
Space Perspective successfully completed an unpiloted test flight of Spaceship Neptune in June, with the first human test flight planned for 2023. It took off from the Space Coast Spaceport, near Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the company hopes to eventually establish launch sites around the world. Poynter said she envisions thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people taking trips to space aboard the balloons every year.
“I see a future where in 7 to 10 years, the price of — let’s call them space vacations — will come down so much that families will be trying to decide whether they want to go to Disney World or to space for their summer vacation,” said Meagan Crawford, managing partner of Space Fund, a venture capital firm that has invested in Space Perspective. “I would love to live in that world.”
To realize that world, however, the price barrier for space tourism will need to come down. The present $125,000 price point for Spaceship Neptune is in part a result of a seller’s market, with very high demand and very few suppliers. As the industry develops and Space Perspective expands its operations, Poynter said Space Perspective plans to make its flights more affordable.
Astronauts have long extolled the transformative experience of seeing Earth from space, known as the “Overview Effect,” a dramatic shift in perspective that leaves the observer with a new sense of humanity’s place on Earth. In a previous interview, NASA astronaut Jessica Meirtold Space Channel that seeing the planet as a whole, without any national borders, had an impact on her. Space Perspective’s goal is to bring that experience to the wider population.
“I believe space tourism has a great potential to support a necessary shift towards a global consciousness relating to a key existential risk of our time, which is climate change,” said David Laurier, space ambassador at Space Perspective.
Spaceship Neptune’s capsule can also be transformed into a research laboratory. In the future, it will carry rideshare payloads with research instruments and conduct scientific experiments in areas like meteoritics, astrophysics, astrobiology, solar physics and upper atmosphere chemistry. With access to an understudied part of Earth’s atmosphere, the research could have implications for climate models, technological development and our knowledge of the effects of UV radiation.
On its test flight in June, Spaceship Neptune carried ozone sensor technology developed by Dr. Nirmal Patel and his students at the University of Northern Florida’s Physics Department. It also collaborated with art collective Beyond Earth to fly Living Light, which became the largest art installation ever to travel to space.
Frank White has authored or coauthored numerous books on topics ranging from space exploration to climate change to artificial intelligence. His best-known work, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human...
Micah helps people understand and participate in the global space economy, commercial space companies, entrepreneurial activity, finance, government budgets and programs, or space policy. In his role as President of...
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