If you want to get to space these days, the typical method of travel entails strapping yourself into a vehicle with a high-powered rocket engine and then hurtling through the sky at thousands of miles per hour. But for those prone to motion sickness, there is one US company that’s taking a more leisurely approach to exploring the high altitudes above Earth. It’s an organization known as World View Enterprises, and its business model is simple: design high-altitude balloons that can take scientific instruments — and people — into the planet’s stratosphere.
World View was officially founded in 2012, but this week the organization is celebrating the opening of its new headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. The new building spans more than 135,000 square feet, and the company claims it’s the world’s first building designed solely for developing stratospheric flight. It’s here that World View plans to manufacture and test out its balloon-ferried vehicles, made to travel up to 100,000 feet, or nearly 20 miles, above the Earth’s surface. From up there, you’ll be able to see the curvature of the planet.
World View’s tourism initiative, called Voyager, envisions a flight that will last about five to six hours, during which a crew of eight will comfortably float up to the stratosphere in a capsule. The vehicle will have all the amenities you need: giant windows, a small bar, a bathroom, and of course Wi-Fi so passengers can post their pictures of the real-time sunrise to social media. You won’t experience weightlessness at that altitude, but you’ll be around three pounds lighter. Reservations are open already, although no flights have been scheduled, and the cost of a ticket is currently at $75,000.
This vision of sending people up in a high-altitude balloon is what prompted the founding of World View. “I remember very clearly [co-founder Taber MacCallum] walking in my office one day, and he said, ‘What do you think about taking people up to the edge of space in an enormous helium balloon?’” Jane Poynter, World View CEO, tells The Verge. “And I didn’t have to think about it. I said, ‘That is it. That’s exactly what we’re looking for.’ It’s gentle, it’s safe. It allows people to be up there for long periods of time.”
Since then, World View has expanded its world view a bit. The company has many notable founders in the spaceflight industry: Poynter herself is the founder of Paragon, which creates technologies for extreme environments, and one of the former crew members of Biosphere 2 — an experiment in the early ‘90s to live inside a closed ecological system simulating a Mars habitat. Former astronaut Mark Kelly is also a co-founder, as well as Alan Stern, the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Last year, World View announced that it was bringing on former Shuttle astronaut Ron Garan to serve as the chief pilot for human spaceflight.
The company isn’t solely focused on using high-altitude balloons for human travel, but also for science. This year, World View is introducing a new vehicle known as the stratollite; it’s equipped with sensors, cameras, and other types of instruments, and is designed to go up to the stratosphere — without people.
The stratollite will be a bit like a low-hanging satellite, except it won’t orbit the Earth and won’t need a rocket to get to its destination; it’ll just hover over one area of the planet for months to up to a year. To maintain position, the stratollite will harness directional winds. Using wind data from national weather services, as well as its own laser pulsing technology, the stratollite can determine which of the winds are moving and then change its altitude accordingly.
“Think of it as sailing the stratosphere,” says Poynter. “We’re sailing with the winds and take advantage of the fact that these winds are moving in all these different directions.” This sailing technique will allow the stratollite to fly in a circle as tight as a few miles across, Poynter says.
The vehicles could be used for a number of things, including communications and remote sensing — the process of scanning the Earth in order to identify objects or measure changes to the surface. World View is particularly excited about using stratollites for weather research and disaster evacuation. For instance, one of these vehicles could carry sensors that provide early warning of tornado formation in an area. “If you fly a stratollite over that area, and you fly the radar pointing down at the ground, you get high fidelity ground wind information,” says Poynter. “So you give them hours and hours of warning, so they can really evacuate and get to safety before a tornado comes barreling through the area.
So far, the company has conducted 50 test and commercial stratollite flights. Earlier this month, World View launched a stratollite in collaboration with spacecraft manufacturer Ball Aerospace, carrying a low-resolution test camera into the stratosphere. These early launches have lasted just a few hours, but World View plans to increase the lifespan of these missions in the year ahead.
For its upcoming launches, the company plans to use a 700-foot launchpad near its new facility in Tucson. The new building also comes equipped with a stratospheric balloon manufacturing table that stretches more than 500 feet long, as well as a 100-foot-tall tower for testing out parafoils — parachute-like structures that will be used for some of the stratospheric flights.
However, the development of the new World View building hasn’t been without some drama. The company, which has a 20-year lease agreement for the facility, got a $15 million deal from Pima County to help fund the construction of the site. Earlier this month, a judge struck down the deal, arguing that the county violated state laws. Pima County officials say they plan to appeal the decision.
It’s something that World View isn’t too concerned about, though. The founders say they aren’t a party to the lawsuit and believe the issue will be resolved fairly. In the meantime, World View is focused on its first flight from the Tucson facility, which is slated to take place in a couple months. The company is refraining from giving a timeline for its Voyager program, but Poynter says that when the crewed flights get started, she’ll definitely be taking a ride.
“We really think this is going to be a transformational experience,” says Poynter.