Balloon to offer luxury, $75,000 ride to edge of space

The Washington Post

There’s a new player in the bustling world of “commercial space,” although the “space” part is a matter of definition.

A Tucson, Arizona-based start-up plans to use a helium balloon to lift big-ticket customers in a pressurized capsule to around 98,000 feet. That’s a journey to the edge of space, if not into space as traditionally defined.

The passengers would ascend for 1½ hours before spending two hours admiring the world from on high. Then the capsule would be disconnected from the balloon and begin a free fall, but a parafoil above the capsule would become increasingly effective in the thickening air and the capsule would glide to the surface, landing on skids.

Price point: $75,000. The eight passengers on board would presumably come from the same customer pool that feeds high-end luxury vacations, such as round the world golf tours.

“The sky’s going to be completely black. You’ll be able to see the curvature of the Earth,” said Jane Poynter, co-founder of Paragon Space Development Corp., which has lined up investors for the new venture, World View Enterprises.

It hopes to begin the balloon flights in three years.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration announced Tuesday that, for purposes of regulation, the capsule will be treated as a space vehicle because it will be built to operate in outer space. “The FAA will not address the more difficult question of whether Paragon’s proposed altitude of 30 km (98,400 feet) constitutes outer space,” it stated.

The venture’s website promises a “truly transformative human experience.” The company said Tuesday it will offer “spectacular human flight into near space, unlike any other suborbital spaceflight experience being offered today, allowing passengers to remain aloft for hours at a comparably affordable price.”

There’s no distinct boundary between the atmosphere and space. Rather, the atmosphere steadily thins with altitude. On tourism trips, the World View balloon would rise to about 98,000 feet.

One commonly referenced boundary of space is the Karman Line. That’s at 100 km (328,000 feet) and is roughly the altitude above which aerodynamic flight is impossible, even in theory.

But in the minds of the people behind World View, they’re getting into space tourism. “In essence, we’re a spacecraft. In fact, we’re a spacecraft,” said Paragon co-founder Taber MacCallum.

Poynter and MacCallum are well known in the entrepreneurial space community. In the early 1990s they spent two years as “bionauts,” sealed inside Biosphere II, a massive, greenhouselike structure in the Arizona desert. Their company, Paragon, has had contracts with NASA for life-support technology.

The field of commercial space has been growing in recent years. Virgin Galactic, backed by billionaire businessman and adventurer Richard Branson, hopes to carry passengers on suborbital flights in 2014. It will use a rocket-powered vehicle called SpaceShipTwo, still in testing, that is designed to reach altitudes above the Karman Line. The company has sold nearly 650 tickets in advance. The ticket price recently jumped to $250,000 a seat, up from $200,000.

“Three years ago or so, it became clear that there’s a space tourism industry. It seems to be bigger than Branson’s personality,” World View’s MacCallum said.

Paragon also is working with billionaire Dennis Tito on his Inspiration Mars plan — a 500-day mission that, if technically feasible, would send two astronauts on a flyby of Mars during a rare alignment of the planets five years from now.