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New balloon company wants to make 'edge of space' tourism a reality

By Benjamin Bullard
Artist rendering of Space Perspective Neptune balloon capsule

Seeing our planet from miles above doesn't have to mean years of rigorous training punctuated by a bone-jarring ride atop a mega-powered rocket. In fact, if a newly formed space travel company hits its mark, it could mean something much more tranquil: a slow, leisurely sail into the stratosphere, where the main qualification to tag along is ponying up the cash to make the trip.

That's the idea behind Space Perspective, a newly formed high-altitude balloon company led by the founders of World View Enterprises (the well-established cargo balloon company that helped KFC pull off a clever marketing score by sailing a chicken sandwich to the heavens back in 2017). Space Perspective is taking the placid approach to space tourism, tailoring high-flying balloons not for scientific purposes, but to provide paying customers a unique view of Earth from truly staggering heights.

Co-founders Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum originally helped start Tucson-based World View Enterprises with leisure flights in mind. But World View has since carved out a niche for uncrewed cargo transport with its oversized Stratollite balloons, making way for Space Perspective to step in and fill that original goal of giving people, quite literally, a new perspective on their home planet.

The thinking behind Space Perspective isn't to reach true space, which NASA defines as 12 miles below the Kármán line — an imaginary boundary 62 miles above sea level that marks the end of usable atmospheric lift for conventional aircraft. Rather, it's to give tourists what MacCallum described to The Verge as the "authentic experience" of getting above it all and seeing the Earth's curvature form in much the same way that astronauts do.

Space Perspective Neptune capsule detail render

In practical terms, according to the report, that means topping out around 19 miles above the Earth's surface — high enough for everything below to look remote, while not high enough to place people on board into the near-weightlessness of microgravity. Poynter told The Verge the round trip would be a gentle ride, unlike rocket-based space tourism projects planned by other companies, which could open the way for all kinds of laid-back on-board events (think weddings, parties, and pretty much anything else you'd do in a hot air balloon … if the baskets were big enough to bring along a bigger group of friends).

Before welcoming its first human traveler, Space Perspective still has to vault a variety of safety and testing hurdles, including how customers will be retrieved from the balloon's futuristic white "Neptune" capsule once it lands back on Earth. Like hot air balloons, Space Perspective's sub-space version won't have fine control over where the wind will take it once it's in the Earth's atmosphere, and the capsule itself will need to be outfitted with life support systems, fly-by-wire, and pressure controls — the kind of things, in other words, that don't leave room for error.

Pictured in the concept render above, the Neptune capsule itself is designed to make the most of the view. Featuring 360-degree windows, the vessel reportedly could accommodate eight people for a round trip tour that Space Perspective estimates would last about six hours — two of which would be spent at peak altitude. According to the company's website, Neptune also would include a restroom, a bar, and (of course) wi-fi.

In keeping with the languid pace of balloon travel, there's no early word on when Space Perspective could launch its first crewed flight. But when it does, customers could opt for yet one more authentic piece of the space travel experience: taking off from the company's operations center on the Florida Space Coast, "from the iconic runway where the Space Shuttle landed upon its return from space." Space Perspective is also eyeing launch locations at Cecil Spaceport in Florida, as well as sites in Hawaii and Alaska.

That means we might as well start saving now — because nothing sounds cooler than crossing both a trip to Hawaii and the near reaches of space from our bucket lists in one unforgettable trip.

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