While space tourism efforts by the likes of Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic are relying on the tried and true technology of rockets to launch paying customers into space, Barcelona-based company zero2infinity proposes a more leisurely and eco-friendly ride into near-space using a helium balloon. Designed to carry passengers to an altitude of 36 km (22 miles), an unmanned scale prototype bloon was flown to an altitude of 33 km (20 miles) last year and the company is already taking bookings for passenger flights that are expected to lift off sometime between 2013 and 2015.

The bloon consists of a 129 m (423 ft) diameter and 96.5 m (316 ft) high sail that carries a 4.2 m (13.7 ft) diameter pod with room for four passengers and two pilots into near-space. The pod features panoramic windows to enjoy the view and passengers can travel as a group of four or be isolated in a 2+2 seating arrangement if they prefer a bit of privacy. The only training required for passengers is a 2-hour training session on the eve of the flight to familiarize them with the bloon's safety systems.

Launching from a dome that can be transported to passengers' preferred point of departure, the bloon will take around an hour to ascend from the Earth's surface to an altitude of 36 km producing no emissions or noise. From there, passengers can enjoy a meal as they take in the views, including the curvature of the Earth, the thin blue layer of the atmosphere and the stars shining in the daylight. After cruising around for a couple of hours, the bloon will begin its descent by venting helium from the sail - a process which takes around an hour.

The sail will then be jettisoned and as the pod falls back to Earth, passengers will be given the option of experiencing up to 25 seconds of different levels of gravity, including zero, lunar or Martian gravity. After 10 minutes, a parasail will be deployed and the pod will be guided on a 30-minute descent to one of the pre-defined landing spots in the landing area. Eight vented airbags are deployed from the bottom of the pod to cushion the impact of landing.

zero2infinity plans to conduct its first manned test flight of a scaled down 'minibloon' next year, with the company saying passenger flights of the full-sized bloon are possible as early as 2013 and no later than 2015. Bookings are currently being taken at the price of 110,000 euro (approx. US$158,000) per passenger. In addition to passenger flights, zero2infinity is also hoping to use the bloon for climate research.

Via designboom