Going to space under a helium balloon

The new commercial space race was meant to be about whizz-bang rockets, space suits and zero gravity. But now it might be won by a gently rising helium balloon with a cocktail bar onboard

(First published in 1927 magazine, Winter 2015)

Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum don’t have the same breakfast conversations as most couples. “Four years ago, Taber walked in and said, What do you think about us taking people to space under enormous balloons?” recalls Poynter. “I was like, That’s it! That’s the idea we’ve been looking for!” As out-there as the idea sounded, it looks set to come to fruition.

World View, the company MacCallum and Poynter soon formed, claims that by 2017 it will be taking passengers into the stratosphere under an ultra-thin polyethylene balloon, which will fill with helium and expand to a size larger than a football stadium. Unlike the rocket-fuelled flights proposed by the likes of Virgin Galactic and XCOR, there will hardly be any noise, and you won’t need a space suit, or much training. What there will be in the capsule – which is about the size of a small Winnebago, and can hold six passengers – is a well-stocked bar.

“What we wanted was something accessible – not a stressful experience getting rattled and rolled by high Gs,” says Poynter of the trips, currently available for $75,000. “Listening to astronauts, what they always say is that they go to space expecting harsh environments and to find this strange new world – but what actually strikes them the most is seeing our planet floating in space for the first time.”

The pair can’t hide their almost childish excitement at the idea, but also keep emphasising that the ultimate aim is for it to be open to everyone. Poynter calls it “just bizarrely awesome” but says that one day going to space should be “a lifestyle choice, almost like buying good coffee.” MacCallum has called it “the ultimate Facebook status update,” while extolling the idea that you can take the whole family.

World View isn’t the only one with this idea of a more inclusive form of space travel. Barcelona-based zero2infinity was founded before World View by José Mariano López-Urdiales, an aeronautical engineer who wrote a paper when he was at grad school claiming that space ballooning could become a $10 billion-a-year industry.

The zero2infinity “bloon” plans to launch its first passenger flights in 2018 – and for a slightly pricier $125,000 you’ll not just get a ride in their donut-shaped capsule up to 22 miles, but you’ll also get a super-luxe two-day mini-break in Spain with Michelin-starred meals.

While Poynter reluctantly admits that zero2infinity represents competition, she says the balloons will be “completely differentiated” from the likes of Virgin and XCOR, which promise weightlessness on their suborbital flights. For a start, a balloon flight will be cheaper – $75,000 com-pared to $250,000 for a 2.5-hour flight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, or $150,000 for a 30-minute trip on the XCOR Lynx – but it will also take longer. “You can sit back with a drink and just absorb it all,” says Poynter.

And while the flights will barely go a third as high as the rocket jets – around 20 miles, compared to the 70 miles promised by Virgin and XCOR – the view won’t be much different. Annelie Schoenmaker, spokesperson for zero2infinity, says: “Passengers may miss out on experiencing microgravity, but what they get is time. Above a certain height, the difference in the view will be very small.”

Poynter goes even further, saying that the view will be “completely indistinguishable. You’ll still see the Earth floating in total darkness, whatever time of day you go. And it will be amazing.”

MacCallum and Poynter’s backstory is a fascinating one. English-born Poynter calls herself a “classic college drop-out” – “Nothing there was saying, Let’s plan a trip to space.” Both she and MacCallum ended up taking part in the first stay in Biosphere 2, a closed ecological system, or vivarium, in Arizona that was partly set up to explore the possibility of colonizing other planets. The pair lived with six others in the three-acre dome for two years and 20 days between 1991 and 1993, learning to grow their own crops, and deal with falling oxygen levels and malnutrition (they reportedly went orange after eating too many sweet potatoes).

While the jury is out on the success of Biosphere 2 – Discover magazine called it “the most exciting scientific project since the Moon landings”; Time named it one of the 100 worst ideas of the century – for MacCallum and Poynter it was formative. “We became very aware of the fledgling commercialisation of space, and everything we’ve done since led on from what happened in there,” she says. They also cemented their relationship, later getting married in front of the Biospheres dome.

While in Biospheres 2, despite limited contact with the outside world, they set up a company called Paragon, “with the big, guiding idea of taking people to Mars.” On this planet, Paragon essentially became a life-support systems company for people in extreme environments, which meant divers and explorers as well as astronauts – but it’s been involved in just about every Mars project going, from the European Mars One to America’s Inspiration Mars, a non-profit run by multimillionaire Dennis Tito that plans to send two people to the Red Planet.

Then, shortly after MacCallum had the balloon idea, the couple had a call from Alan Eustace, a middle-aged Google executive and rather unlikely daredevil, who wanted to fulfill a dream of freefalling from the stratosphere. With a small design team largely from Paragon, named StratEx, they created a self-contained spacesuit and a balloon system to take Eustace up to 135,908ft , from which he beat Austrian Felix Baumgartner’s freefall height record. “The balloons are a beautiful mechanism for taking off ,” he raved. “You’re perfectly balanced; it’s perfectly quiet; there’s no vibration.”

The team of 30 or so behind Eustace’s record now form the key people behind World View, with decorated former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly and prominent NASA scientist Dr Alan Stern leaders on the team. They plan to increase the levels of testing in late 2015 and early 2016, and say they’re on track to take passengers up in 2017.

A big advantage of the balloons is safety, given that there are fewer moving parts than with anything rocket-propelled. Last fall, a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo test flight exploded over the Mojave Desert, killing a test pilot. Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who recently signed on to advise zero2infinity, told Popular Science magazine: “When you light a rocket, 10,000 things can happen, and only one of them is good. With balloons, you’re not going as fast, you’re not going as high, you’re not putting as much energy into the system.”

Balloons may pale in comparison to rockets in the popular imagination, but they do have a bit of history on their side. Balloons first took humans into the stratosphere in the 1930s, in what was widely considered the first space race, and they continued to set altitude records through the 1950s. When David Simons went to 101,500ft in 1957, it was taken as proof that humans could survive in space; his achievement is said to have played a key part in President Kennedy’s decision to go to the Moon. According to Poynter, MacCallum’s original idea was inspired by seeing his astrophysicist father use balloons in his research.

Eustace’s space record is the latest big moment for helium balloons, but passengers going up into the darkness could be the next and perhaps greatest milestone. “To be honest, I thought space tourism would have started by now,” Poynter admits. “But it’s still this incredibly exciting time. There’s been a huge groundswell of interest, and more people are building spaceships now then ever.”

The aim, she has come to believe, is as much about understanding our own planet as it is about discovering others. “We still dream of Mars, but we also dream of Earth. It’s not just about giving people a view, it’s for society to get a new perspective on this planet we live on.”

Besides, she finally admits, “I just really want to go up there and see it for myself.”

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