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World View Enterprises near-space balloon flights to begin in 2016

By

October 24, 2013

Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprise...

Artist's concept of the World View balloon capsule in flight (Photo: World View Enterprises)

Image Gallery (8 images)

The newest entry in the fledgling space (or near-space) tourism sector will see passengers take a balloon ride to an altitude of 30 km (18.6 mi) from where they will be treated to a spectacular view of the Earth. World View Enterprises has now obtained US Federal Aviation Administration approval for its proposed balloon experiences, which will cost US$75,000, and are projected to begin in 2016.

A mere ten years elapsed between the first demonstration of controlled powered manned flight and the first commercial passenger air route. Those of us around at the beginning of the Space Age expected (perhaps naively) a rather rapid transition to orbital hotels and flourishing bases or colonies on the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the Solar System.

Instead, nearly 70 years have passed without making much visible progress toward such a future. As a result, people are seeking something to give them a taste of space. While these sub-orbital offerings won't actually get you into space, which is defined as being 100 km (62 mi) from the Earth's surface, they may well satisfy these longings.

Enter World View Enterprises, a start-up company based in Tucson, Arizona that is trying to strike a new balance to entice space enthusiasts into the fold of space tourism. The company hopes that very its high altitude balloon flights will press enough of the right buttons that space-hungry enthusiasts will pony up $75K for a ride.

Design

The World View balloon capsule will be treated as a space vehicle by the FAA (Photo: World...

Aiming at an altitude of 30 km (19 mi, or just under 100,000 ft), two pilots and up to six passengers will enter a pressurized, shirt-sleeve environment capsule, which appears from the concept pictures to be a horizontal cylinder about 3 m in diameter and about 6 m in length.

The World View balloon at altitude, where a black sky and a curved horizon can be plainly ...

The capsule is deployed below a parasail (used for recovery), with the pair hanging from a 400,000 cubic meter (14 million cu ft) helium balloon, which provides the lift needed to bring the capsule and its occupants to the desired 30 km altitude. The initial helium fill requires about 5000 cubic meters, costing about $50-60,000. The surface area of the balloon is about 25 acres (100,000 sq m), but as the high-density polyethylene is only about 20 microns (just under 0.001 in) in thickness, its total weight is around two tons.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has determined that the engineering and environmental challenges facing the pressurized capsule are essentially the same as those met in low-earth orbit. They are requiring that the capsule be designed and tested as if it were going to have long-term exposure in space, although it is never intended to operate at altitudes much above 30 km. It will not, however, have to follow the rules and procedures governing launch of suborbital rockets, as, in the FAA representative's perceptive words, "the World View capsule is not a rocket."

The design has a safety factor of 1.4, the same as that required of manned space systems. This is one of the largest helium balloons ever used for human flight, although it's just half the size of the Red Bull balloon from which Felix Baumgartner made his record-setting supersonic skydive.

Flight Plan

The World View balloon capsule lifts free of Earth (Photo: World View Enterprises)

The flight itself is projected to last about four hours. Ascent to the 30 km target altitude is estimated to take 1.5-2 hours. The capsule will remain at altitude for about two hours, during which time the semi-space tourists will be free to move about the cabin and take in the view. Unfortunately, they will not experience weightlessness during this period.

The first step in returning the capsule to the surface is to cut away the balloon. This does produce a period of weightlessness (and likely a bit of terror), but passengers will breathe again once the capsule gains enough speed that the parafoil can provide sufficient lift to keep the descent of the capsule under control. The capsule lands as a paraglider, deploying a set of skids upon which to land.

As a physicist who did his Ph.D. thesis on low temperature physics, I have to comment on throwing away the helium with the balloon. Helium is a non-renewable resource whose origins are in the alpha decay of uranium and thorium and their decay products within the Earth's crust. Some of this helium eventually diffuses into underground cavities containing petroleum and natural gas, from which the helium can be extracted by fractional diffusion.

The problem is that no mechanism exists to replenish our accessible sources of helium in less than geological time frames, so we have to be careful to husband our limited supplies. Ultimately the market will render wasting helium uneconomical, but that date is not likely to be greatly affected by high altitude balloon flights.

The World View capsule awaits launch (Photo: World View Enterprises)

All in all, the balloon ride being suggested by World View does appear to hit many of the key points, such as seeing black sky and the curvature of the Earth, that may add up to an experience that's almost as good as being in space. However, it misses the key bragging right, a set of astronaut's wings, not by a mile, but by about 43 of them. Will enough passengers still line up for an amazing day's flight that costs a startling $75K? Time will tell, but I have my doubts. Regardless, the World View video below is amazing.

Source: World View Enterprises

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
23 Comments

I think if they want to attract more people to go for a ride, they would need to reduce the price.

Perhaps this situation they could use a blend of helium and hydrogen? Have the hydrogen be the main lifting gas while have just enough helium to keep it safe? It could reduce the need to use helium.

I think it is really cool. It would be neat to have cameras on both the outside and the inside. Perhaps have a 'flight to space' experience similar to the Soarin ride at Disney Land and Disney World. I think they could make more money that way. It would allow more people to experience it without the high cost.

BigGoofyGuy
25th October, 2013 @ 05:48 am PDT

Agree with the author re the profligate waste of helium- it seems incredibly wasteful of a non renewable resource just to provide a four-hour jolly for the privileged few.

bergamot69
25th October, 2013 @ 06:02 am PDT

Agree on the waste of heilium. There is a lot less than we realize. The current price is not reflective of the supply or demand as the U.S. Congress passed a law in the early 2000's that our strategic supply of helium needs to be drained by x date. As a result, the U.S. has priced it at such a rate that it will meet this demand, ignoring the fact that the market price sans this flood is actually significantly higher.

Chris White
25th October, 2013 @ 06:15 am PDT

Ammonia gas is lighter-than-air and has the added benefit of being compressed to a liquid which would reduce lift and create ballast thus allowing better altitude control. Pros: cost, re-usable, better altitude control, larger molecule than He (balloon wall material choices)

Cons: irritant to humans, toxic, condensation issues of moisture dripping on outside of balloon could react with leak forming ammonium hydroxide, which could drip onto gondola. Definitely a consideration for unmanned cell phone and communications dirigibles.

PuraVida
25th October, 2013 @ 07:05 am PDT

I would think that it would be cheaper especially in the long run to include a pump and storage for the helium rather than throw away a few hundred thousand cubic meters of it every "launch". It wouldn't have to be an enormous pump as the decent doesn't need to be fast.

VirtualGathis
25th October, 2013 @ 08:30 am PDT

Looks cool, but not $70,000 worth of cool. They're going to have to work on that part of it.

William B. Bangs
25th October, 2013 @ 10:38 am PDT

"...the...F.A.A. has determined..." ?? Can't we do anything without govt.? This is not an "aircraft". It's a "floatcraft". It does not fly or glide. It goes up and then comes down. "Land of the free" or land of the controlled?

The He problem is easily fixed: use H2.

Don Duncan
25th October, 2013 @ 10:49 am PDT

That's quite a pricey ticket just to go a little more than twice as high as airliners already go on a daily basis.

flylowguy
25th October, 2013 @ 10:52 am PDT

If they're really smart, they will take very hi-res panoramic shots on their first trip up, drop them on a server, create a small app for panning about... Oculus Rift style. The Oculus Rift is looking like it will be a very successful product, and high-scale, hi-res panoramas will be popular items for such head-tracking displays. I imagine that few people would be willing to pay $75K for the real deal, but many hundreds of thousands of people would be willing to pay a few tens of dollar for an amazing and dramatic virtual view of the Earth that, other than lack of weightlessness, would look like the real deal.

kalqlate
25th October, 2013 @ 03:59 pm PDT

As kalqlate suggests, a hi-res, panoramic video could be made, and shown on HD screens from the outside of a mock up capsule. As there is little or no acceleration felt going up in a balloon, the assimilated experience would feel real. The capsule could in reality be towed up a tower, and when the "balloon" is released, the capsule could be dropped in freefall, to create a feeling of weightlessness, if only for a few seconds. This could easily be a fairground ride of the near future.

One thing struck me, watching the video. The para-sail would not stay in its inflated form as it needs to be moving forward into the wind. If there was a wind the balloon would be moving along with it.

David Colton Clarke
25th October, 2013 @ 04:33 pm PDT

Love idea, really do but see issues:

Recovery.

Launch sites

travel time to launch port

worldwide recovery teams

carry more than 2 into near space IE 8, 9.

air traffic in launch or recovery zone

land anyplace for recovery?

Otherwise Im gone now

Stephen N Russell
25th October, 2013 @ 06:28 pm PDT

flylowguy - actually its 3x as high as a normal airliner.

chriswhite - actually that law was passed a long time ago (in the 1920's).

Helium is the second most abundant gas in the universe...so stop worrying, were not going to run out of it, because we wont let ourselves run out of it. by 2020 the US government will have (finally) sold off all of its helium reserves, at which point all the helium that people will buy after that will be from private parties. Helium is a byproduct from extracting natural gas...who's popularity has gone up over the years. There is already a couple of private companies who have helium plants, one is in Wyoming...I can't remember what state the other one is in.

Helium will cost more in the future because its price will finally reflect what it costs to extract it (plus profit).

But the point is, Helium isn't running out, but by before this decade is done, it will likely be too expensive to put in party balloons, but price just fine for things like this...and MRI's and the such.

Derek Howe
25th October, 2013 @ 06:32 pm PDT

You beat me to it VirtualGathis. Yes they can easily reuse the helium by compressing it and bringing it back with them. I'm also concerned by the loss of helium, it's a one time gift and has important uses apart from party balloons.

As for the trip idea, it really is too much to spend for a souped-up inflatable balloon. I'd love to see space before I die but wouldn't spend more than $5k with my current budget to do that.

Also I would've preferred if they made the return vehicle a glider, in case something happens to the parachute and balloon.

John Stone
25th October, 2013 @ 08:57 pm PDT

What happens to the helium envelope? More needless waste, and possibly worse.

whatchamucallit
25th October, 2013 @ 09:33 pm PDT

Don Duncan,

No, we can't do anything in the air without the FAA. The last thing we need is for poorly designed equipment to be falling onto people.

As for all of the people calling for using hydrogen, FAA regulations specifically forbid the use of hydrogen as a lifting gas in any passenger-bearing lighter-than-air craft.

Gadgeteer
26th October, 2013 @ 12:01 am PDT

Very cool graphics and concept.

Bob Felton
26th October, 2013 @ 10:04 am PDT

Practically speaking we will not run out of helium for medical and industrial purposes. while it is much cheaper to extract helium form natural gas it is possible to extract helium from the atmosphere on an industrial basis. I have seen the number that it is 30 time more expensive to get helium from the atmosphere than from natural gas but medical and industrial purposes use very little helium as it is recycled. floaty balloons will switch to other gasses I would suspect hydrogen but methane and ammonia are both liter than air.

The FAA rule that Hydrogen is not suppose to be used for lifting people is the kind of rule that demonstrates why governments need to be on short leashes. Sure hydrogen burns but the fire on the Hindenburg did not start as a result of the hydrogen and with this silly balloon ride the balloon is very distant from any ignition sources before the gondola leaves the ground.

Slowburn
27th October, 2013 @ 02:30 am PDT

It's too bad the FAA won't allow the use of H2 -- that really would make a lot more sense in this application.

I tend to agree with the other commenters that this sounds like fun... But not $75 worth of fun.

Joe Strout
27th October, 2013 @ 12:47 pm PDT

Solution!!! Use two helium ballons. A huge one that you will Return to earth with and a small one that will tip the weight balance for initial ascent. This way u would only waste a minimal amount of helium, the descent would be much smoother, the ascent could be quicker and minimal polyethylene will be lost. The only drawback would be loss of volume to surface area ratio, but the increased first flight cost woul be countered by the reusability savings.

Christopher James Dabdoub
27th October, 2013 @ 08:17 pm PDT

If it's $75,000 and $50,000-$60,000 of it is just the helium, then if the helium could be recovered somehow (perhaps Christopher's idea), then the ride itself would only be $15,000-$25,000, plus a bit more maybe to factor in the cost of recovering the helium, much more affordable. For that price, I would definitely save up to do it. For $75,000, I wouldn't call it ridiculously expensive, just ridiculously expensive for most people's mindset. All you need is the drive and determination and you will find a way to come up with $75,000 if it was something you really wanted to do before you die.

ClubDoug
28th October, 2013 @ 05:36 am PDT

We have polluted the earth, destroyed the natural balance of life on earth and already have so much 'junk' floating above the earth right now, do we really need "space (or near-space) tourism"?

We can't even be good stewards of our 'own planet' so now we want to go and screw up outer space and other planets . . .

I love science and technology when used wisely and intelligently but - try a little common sense folks.

If you really want to be of service take the time, energy and money devoted to space travel and all of the other 'assorted' adventures we piddle with and help folks right here on planet earth live a better life by helping them learn and understand how to get along with one another and create a safe and peaceful environment here on mother earth.

joyusapollo
28th October, 2013 @ 04:13 pm PDT

Sorry joyusapollo but I have to disagree. It's all those 'other assorted adventures' that make life worth living! Which is what gives people in 1st world countries the aspiration to achieve more and earn more in order to accomplish those adventures. In turn, by achieving and earning more in order to live out these adventures, those individuals are in fact placing themselves in a position whereby they can in fact reach out and help other who are less priviledged. Whether they choose to or not is a reflection of their character, but in general those who come from not much and end up becoming great do so by learning how to help others, and this is how you become rich, as helping others is the most profitable thing you can do on Earth. There's no profit in helping other folks on planet Earth to live better lives, because seriously would you and every other ordinary member of your community be willing to save up $75,000 each and spend it on improving some 3rd world community, or would you rather spend it on the ride of your life that you will remember forever? Those that learn to earn enough to make this affordable will be the ones that can afford and will afford both options, so it's projects like this that do in fact in turn help out the underpriviledged in this world...

ClubDoug
29th October, 2013 @ 05:15 am PDT

Clubdoug- Following your advice would have us all still living in nice caves, but more in tune with 'nature'. For all the people who are truly committed to a better Earth; don't have kids. The only thing wrong with our society or the earth is just too many humans, so do your part and don't have any.

Mike Kling
13th November, 2013 @ 12:59 pm PST
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