Startup Aims To Provide Balloon Rides to Near-space

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If the latest venture from Paragon Space Development Corp. succeeds, people will not have to climb aboard a rocketship to be a space tourist anymore.

For $75,000, the new venture — World View Enterprises — will loft passengers 30 kilometers up into Earth’s atmosphere using a high-altitude balloon. While the ride will not earn passengers their astronaut wings — outer space is generally considered to begin at an altitude of 100 kilometers — it will afford spectacular views of the blackness of space and the curvature of our planet, World View officials said.

“Seeing the Earth hanging in the ink-black void of space will help people realize our connection to our home planet and to the universe around us, and will surely offer a transformative experience to our customers,” World View Chief Executive Jane Poynter, co-founder of Tucson, Ariz.-based life-support system specialist Paragon Space Development Corp., said in a statement. 

“It is also our goal to open up a whole new realm for exercising human curiosity, scientific research and education,” she added. “We look forward to pioneering this new, accessible and affordable spaceflight regime, and to sharing the breathtaking, once-in-a-lifetime experience with people from around the globe.”

World View’s balloon ride, which will let customers glide for about two hours at maximum altitude, is a departure from the other options being offered to would-be space tourists.

For example, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are both offering brief suborbital flights to an altitude of about 100 kilometers aboard rocket-powered spaceplanes. In both cases, passengers will get a few minutes of weightlessness along with the great view.

Virgin Galactic is charging $250,000 per seat aboard its six-passenger SpaceShipTwo, while a ride on XCOR’s one-passenger Lynx vehicle costs $95,000. Neither spaceship is fully operational at the moment, though both could be flying customers in the next year or so, officials with each company have said.

Passengers on World View balloon flights would ride inside a capsule designed by Paragon Space Development Corp., a NASA contractor currently collaborating with two private Mars efforts — the Inspiration Mars mission to send two astronauts on a red planet flyby in 2018 and Mars One, a project that aims to land four people on the red planet in 2023 as the vanguard of a permanent colony.

Paragon has begun testing capsule components and will soon start demonstrating the flight capabilities of the entire system, World View officials said.

World View’s head scientist is Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator for science and current principal investigator for the agency’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

The Federal Aviation Administration recently concluded that World View’s spacecraft and operations fall under the jurisdiction of its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, World View officials said.