The original founders of World View Enterprises – a company aiming to use giant balloons to send payloads into the stratosphere – are together launching a new venture, which will use those same massive balloons to send people quietly above the Earth. Named space perspectivethe now-separate company focuses on paying customers floating to the edge of “space,” where they can get a rare view of the Earth’s curvature.
Such a relaxed space travel experience has long been the goal of Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, the co-CEOs of Space Perspective who are announcing the company’s launch today. They originally launched World View with sightseeing flights as their main endgame, but are now creating a separate business to focus on the full-time goal. The idea is to give people a spectacular view of Earth from above, without having to strap on a rocket and soar through the sky at thousands of miles an hour like other companies plan to do so. “We came back to the idea of using these high-altitude balloon systems to be able to take people very gently to the edge of space,” Poynter said. The edge.
Technically, Space Perspective does not plan to send people to real space. The company wants to transport customers up to 100,000 feet, or nearly 19 miles high. It’s a much lower altitude than what many would consider the 50 mile high edge of space, so you won’t get the full space experience. Space Perspective crews wouldn’t experience weightlessness, for example (although they feel about three pounds lighter). Still, the team argues that people will be located above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere and their balloon will be regulated as spacecraft by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Flight.
Also, the real point is the view. “We say we’re going to the edge of space, but the experience is really what the astronaut [and Space Perspective advisor] Jeff Hoffman calls the experience authentic,” says MacCallum The edge. “Because for him to see Earth from space – with time and calm and being relaxed and really able to contemplate what he’s seeing – that’s what he calls the authentic experience, and it’s so that’s what we’re really focusing on.”
Space tourism that sends people to the far reaches of space and back has been slow to kick in, with companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic still a long way from entering commercial operations. These vehicles rely on rocket engines to carry people away from Earth, and they go much higher – between 50 and 62 miles. Poynter argues that their system is very different from those rockets – notably without a rocket engine – so they don’t expect to encounter some of the same problems.
To get to the stratosphere, customers rode inside a spherical white capsule called Neptune that looks a bit like a spinning top, with large glass windows offering a clear view of the Earth below. The “propeller” would be a huge translucent balloon filled with hydrogen, which would rise at the dizzying speed of 12 miles per hour. Eight passengers could fit inside the craft, as well as a pilot to make sure everything goes well, according to the company. The entire flight is supposed to take about six hours, including two hours spent hovering above the Earth. A bar and a bathroom will be centrally located, and there will be absolutely any kind of Wi-Fi connection.
Some sort of satellite communication will be essential to speak with ground control, but it will also allow riders to post photos from the sky. And then, if people want to do some kind of special event on board – like a wedding or an art exhibition – there will be other options. “For special events where we really want to livestream something from the Neptune, we’ll have a fancier comms system that will be able to do very high-resolution, high-bandwidth livestreaming,” says Poynter.
It’s an ambitious idea, but the two CEOs are used to working together on fantastic projects. Both Poynter and MacCallum participated in the much publicized – and controversial – Biosphere 2 experiment in the early 90s, where a small group of people attempted to live in a closed-loop ecosystem to simulate what it would be like to live on March. They also worked on a high-altitude balloon flight that carried a person into the stratosphere. While working together at their other space company, called Paragon, they created a life support system for Alan Eustace, the former senior vice president of engineering at Google, who broke the record for the highest altitude jump from a balloon above 135,000 feet.
Inspired by the idea of balloon travel, they launched World View together in 2012. But that company began to focus less on tourism and more on science. World View has developed a new product called Stratollite – a vehicle that acts like a satellite without being in orbit around the Earth. It consists of a metal assembly – filled with sensors, instruments, etc. – which moves towards the stratosphere under a balloon. Up there, the Stratollite is supposed to hover above a location on Earth for an extended period of time, collecting data from the surface below. The company currently plans to deploy fleets of Stratollites in North and Central America starting this summer.
With World View so focused on the Stratollites, Poynter eventually stepped down as CEO in order to keep the dream of balloon tourism alive. Poynter says they’ve done market research on their idea and there’s a lot of interest from potential customers. To maintain momentum, Space Perspective moved to Cape Canaveral, Florida, renting a building from NASA at Kennedy’s Space Center. They plan to launch their first uncrewed test flight from the Space Florida Launch and Landing Facility – a runway where NASA’s space shuttle used to land – early next year. . This flight will require scientific payloads, which the company will announce in the coming months.
However, there is still work to be done before scheduled flights are ready, especially regarding landing. While carrying passengers, Space Perspective predicts its Neptune capsule will crash into the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico after flights from Cape Town. The company depends on the direction of the winds to know where the vehicle ends up, as there will be no options to control the direction of the vehicle in flight. This means that they will need a recovery boat to come and retrieve the capsule from the seas. Space Perspective says it’s spoken to people recovering SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule from the ocean to figure out the best way to do it. This startup method also means the business can launch from other regions, such as Hawaii or Alaska.
The company also needs to make sure the ride will be safe for passengers, which Poynter and MacCallum insist it will be. The Neptune capsule will have a life support system and pressure control, and although the vehicle will be mainly piloted by people on the ground, the designated pilot on board can help customers with any problems. And if the balloon suffers some sort of leak or failure, a reserve parachute will be on hand to bring the capsule down safely, according to MacCallum.
There may be other issues to resolve along the way. The development of World View’s Stratollite, for example, took longer than expected, as the company spent years trying to extend the life of the vehicle in the air. Poynter and MacCallum say these issues should not impact the development of their new system, as they are less focused on navigating their capsule in the same way World View manages its Stratollite. “Altitude control and his work for the Stratollite was a huge undertaking and very different from human flight,” MacCallum explains. “They really are very, very different worlds, and although they’re both balloons that go into the stratosphere, that’s really where the similarities end.”
With all of these things in mind, Space Perspective still has some very big plans for the future. Poynter and MacCallum say their Neptune capsule will be reusable and they hope to get 1,000 flights with each vehicle. Eventually, they plan to operate up to 100 flights a year, and ticket prices, while still high, will be lower than other space tourism companies, they claim. Poynter expects each ticket to be less than half of what Virgin Galactic charges, or $250,000 per seat. She expects tickets with final prices to go on sale next year.
But really, Space Perspective says it wants everyone to be able to take advantage of this method of travel. The company has also partnered with Space for Humanity, a nonprofit that hopes to provide all-expenses-paid trips to space. Space Perspective also wants to fly artists, political leaders, spiritual leaders, and more, to help them see the world differently. “Astronauts who talked about seeing the one human family, no borders, and a small planet…really resonated with us,” MacCallum said. “We always thought that was a really important set of ideas, to have that visceral experience to help move the needle.”