The original founders of World View Enterprises — a company aimed at using giant balloons to send payloads into the stratosphere — are launching a new venture together, one that will use those same massive balloons to send people leisurely above the Earth. Named Space Perspective, the now distinct company is focused on floating paying customers up to the edge of “space,” where they can get a rare view of the curvature of the Earth.
Such a relaxed space travel experience has long been the aim of Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, the co-CEOs of Space Perspective who are announcing the launch of the company today. They originally started World View with tourist flights as the primary end game, but they’re now making a separate enterprise to focus on the goal full-time. The idea is to give people a spectacular view of Earth from above, without having to strap into a rocket and shoot up into the sky at thousands of miles an hour, as other companies plan to do. “We came right back to the idea of using these high-altitude balloon systems to be able to take people really gently to the edge of space,” Poynter tells The Verge.
Technically, Space Perspective doesn’t plan to send people to actual space. The company wants to fly customers up to 100,000 feet, or close to 19 miles high. It’s a much lower altitude than what many consider to be the edge of space at 50 miles up, so you wouldn’t get the full space experience. Space Perspective crews wouldn’t experience weightlessness, for instance (though they’ll feel about three pounds lighter). Still, the team argues people will be located above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere, and that their balloon vessel will be regulated like a spacecraft through the FAA’s Office of Commercial Spaceflight.
Plus, the real point is the view. “We say we’re going to the edge of space, but the experience is really what astronaut [and Space Perspective advisor] Jeff Hoffman calls the authentic experience,” MacCallum tells The Verge. “Because for him, seeing the Earth from space — with time and quiet and being relaxed and really being able to contemplate what he’s seeing — that’s what he calls the authentic experience, and so that’s what we’re really concentrating on.”
Space tourism that sends people to the edge of space and back has been slow to get into full swing, with companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic still a ways off from entering commercial operations. Those vehicles rely on rocket engines to get people off of Earth, and they go much higher — between 50 and 62 miles up. Poynter contends that their system is very different from these rockets — notably lacking a rocket engine — so they don’t expect to run into some of the same problems.
To get to the stratosphere, customers would ride inside a spherical white capsule called Neptune that looks a bit like a spinning top, with wide glass windows providing a clear view of the Earth below. The “propellant” would be a massive translucent balloon filled with hydrogen, which would ascend at the breakneck pace of 12 miles per hour. Eight passengers could fit inside the craft, along with one pilot to make sure everything runs smoothly, according to the company. The entire flight is meant to last about six hours, with two hours spent hovering above the Earth. A bar and a bathroom will be situated in the center, and there will absolutely be a Wi-Fi connection of some kind.
Some kind of satellite communication will be key for talking with ground control, but it will also allow riders to post photos from the sky. And then if people want to do some kind of special event on board — such as a wedding or art show — there will be other options. “For special events where we really want to livestream something from the Neptune, we will have a swankier communication system that will be able to do really high resolution, broadband live streaming,” says Poynter.
It’s an ambitious idea, but the two CEOs have a history of working on fantastical projects together. Poynter and MacCallum both participated in the much hyped — and controversial — Biosphere 2 experiment back in the early ‘90s, where a small group of people attempted to live in a closed-loop ecosystem to simulate what it would be like to live on Mars. They also have experience working on a high-altitude balloon flight that carried a person to the stratosphere. While working together at their other space company, called Paragon, they created a life-support system for Alan Eustace, the former senior vice president of engineering at Google, who broke the record for the highest altitude jump from a balloon from above 135,000 feet.
Inspired by the idea of travel-by-balloon, they started World View together in 2012. But that company has started to focus less on tourism and more on science. World View has been developing a new product called the Stratollite — a vehicle that acts akin to a satellite without actually orbiting the Earth. It consists of a metallic package — filled with sensors, instruments, and more — that travels to the stratosphere underneath a balloon. Up there, the Stratollite is meant to hover over one place on the Earth for an extended period of time, collecting data of the surface below. The company is currently planning to deploy fleets of Stratollites over North and Central America starting this summer.
With World View so focused on Stratollites, Poynter eventually stepped down as CEO in order to keep the dream of balloon-travel tourism alive. Poynter says they’ve done market research on their idea and that there’s plenty of interest from potential customers. To keep up the momentum, Space Perspective has set up shop at Cape Canaveral, Florida, leasing a building from NASA at Kennedy’s Space Center. They plan to launch their first uncrewed test flight from Space Florida’s Launch and Landing Facility — a runway where NASA’s Space Shuttle used to land — sometime early next year. That flight will take up some scientific payloads, which the company will announce in the coming months.
There’s still work to be done before regular flights are ready, though, especially when it comes to landing. While carrying passengers, Space Perspective plans for its Neptune capsule to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico following flights from the Cape. The company is reliant on the direction of the winds for where the vehicle ends up, as there won’t be options for controlling the direction of the vehicle in flight. That means they’ll need a recovery boat to come pick up the capsule from the seas. Space Perspective says it has been talking to the people who recover SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule from the ocean to figure out that best way to do that. This splashdown method also means the company can launch from other areas, like Hawaii or Alaska.
The company also needs to ensure that the ride will be safe for passengers, which Poynter and MacCallum insist it will be. The Neptune capsule will have a life support system and pressure control, and though the vehicle will mostly be flown by people on the ground, the designated pilot on board can assist customers if some kind of problem arises. And if the balloon suffers some kind of leak or failure, a reserve parachute will be on hand to bring the capsule down safely, according to MacCallum.
There may just be other kinks to work out on the way though. World View’s Stratollite development, for example, has taken longer than expected, as the company has spent years trying to extend the amount of time the vehicle can last while in the air. Poynter and MacCallum say that those issues shouldn’t impact the development of their new system, since they are less focused on navigating their capsule the same way World View handles its Stratollite. “Altitude control and working that out for the Stratollite was a huge undertaking and very different than human flight,” says MacCallum. “These are really very, very different worlds, and while they’re both balloons going into the stratosphere, that’s really where the similarities end.”
With all these things in mind, Space Perspective still has very big plans for the future. Poynter and MacCallum say their Neptune capsule will be reusable, and they hope to get 1,000 flights out of each vehicle. Eventually they plan to fly up to 100 flights a year, and ticket prices, while still high, will be lower than other space tourism ventures, they claim. Poynter expects each ticket to be less than half of what Virgin Galactic charges, which is $250,000 a seat. She expects tickets with finalized prices to go on sale next year.
But really, Space Perspective says it wants everyone to be able to enjoy this method of travel. The company has also partnered with Space for Humanity, a non-profit that hopes to provide all-expenses-paid trips to space. Space Perspective also wants to fly artists, political leaders, spiritual leaders, and more, to help them see the world differently. “The astronauts who talked about seeing the one human family and no borders and one small planet... really resonated with us,” MacCallum says. “We’ve always thought that that’s a really important set of ideas, to have that visceral experience to help move the needle.”