Up until very recently, the opportunity to travel into space was largely restricted to a select few individuals, most of whom where in the employ of their governments. Sure, there have been a handful of billionaires who have hitched a ride to the International Space Station aboard a Russian rocket, but those were incredibly rare cases.
Recently however, we’ve seen the dawn of new space race—one that pits private companies against one another in effort to make private space travel a reality. In July, Virgin Galactic tested its sub-orbital space plane with passengers for the first time, while just days later Blue Origin flew its rocket even higher with company founder Jeff Bezos aboard. Meanwhile, a few short months later, Elon Musk’s Space X flew a crew of four passengers into orbit on a four-day journey unlike any other.
Now, another contender has emerged in this high-stakes race that promises to do things very differently from the others. World View says that it will offer a more affordable option for taking passengers to the edge of space, although it doesn’t expect to begin flights for at least another three years.
A Balloon Ride to the Heavens
Unlike the competition, the team at World View is not spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing a sophisticated rocket system. Instead, the company is looking to use high tech balloons to carry passengers 19 miles (30 km) up into the stratosphere. That is well below the so-called Kármán Line, which is located 62 miles (100 km) above the planet and is largely recognized as where space officially begins. Still, World View customers would be able to spot the curvature of the Earth and witness the darkness of space overhead.
By using balloons, World View isn’t limited to where it can launch its flights either. The company’s website promises customers the option of floating above some iconic places, including the Grand Canyon, the Amazon Rainforest, and the Serengeti. Flights are expected to last anywhere from 6 to 12 hours, with a smooth and gentle ride that will be very different from what Space X, Virgin, and Blue Origin offer.
The flight will be much more comfortable in other was too. Passengers aboard the World View balloon will be able to get up from their seats and walk around the cabin, taking in the sights from a variety of angles. The capsule will also be stocked with food and beverages, including a fully stocked bar. The large cabin will also allow the company to carry more passengers on a single launch, which will be key to getting the business profitable.
A Long, Careful Journey
Like it’s rocket-powered competition, World View has been developing its flight systems for years. The company first announced its plans back in 2013 and made a high-altitude test flight the following year as a proof of concept. At the time, the plan was to start taking passengers into the upper atmosphere by 2016. But as with many ambitious start ups, it was forced to pivot while in the research and development phase.
For the past several years, World View has been operating unmanned balloons at high altitude for a variety of purposes. The balloons can be used to collect data on the upper atmosphere for instance, and they can deliver photographic and communications equipment to great heights too. Better still, they can remain aloft for days on end, giving them advantages over aircraft and even satellites.
Last week, World View announced via a press release that it was turning its attention back to its original goal. The statement stressed the relative affordability and duration of the experience as selling points. It also entices potential customers with options to fly over the Great Pyramids at Giza in Egypt or the Great Wall in China, as well as experiencing the Northern Lights in Norway.
The price for a World View balloon ride will be less expensive than the competition, although you’ll still need plenty of cash. The company’s website is taking reservations for its first flights—currently expected in early 2024—with a price tag of $50,000. While that is obviously a lot of money, it is believed to be a relative bargain when compared to Space X, Virgin, and Blue Origin.
Of those three, only Virgin Galactic is sharing the price of a seat on one of its flights at the moment. Such a trip will set you back $450,000 for a roughly two to three hour journey, which does provide passengers with a short period of weightlessness. Blue Origin and Space X have been more opaque when it comes to pricing, although a ride on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is expected to be cost in the neighborhood of around $1 million. Space X’s fully-orbital flights will cost even more, with a mission to orbit the moon also in the works.
At these prices, true commercial space travel is still many years away. Still, it is exciting to watch this industry expand and become a reality. For the near future, these journeys will remain mostly for the wealthy, but it is possible we’ll see options for the rest of us within our lifetimes.
Sign me up. I’m ready to go.
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