Imagine that you could float into space as effortlessly as a helium balloon floating from a kid’s birthday party. That’s the dream of Jose-Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, whose company zero2infinity is pioneering a new type of space tourism in the form of a vehicle he calls a “bloon”.
If his vision is realised, you would first enter the pod from a giant dome-shaped launching pad. A 96m-tall (315ft) balloon would carry you aloft, taking around an hour reach around 36 kilometres (22 miles) above the Earth’s surface. There, the bloon would drift for a couple of hours, as you take in the view of the Earth below from four huge panoramic windows – perhaps while sipping Martinis or enjoying a talk from a former astronaut.
Lopez-Urdiales says the “change of perspective” will encourage passengers to take more care of the Earth after their trip
When it comes to the time to descent, the bloon would vent some gas, before discarding the balloon sack altogether. A parachute would then open above the pod to slow the landing, and as you reach Earth eight airbags would cushion the impact. Using meteorological data and atmospheric simulations to plan their path, the bloon pilots could ensure that always landed in a safe location.
At least, that’s the plan. Admittedly, it won’t be reaching the heights of the flights offered by the likes of Virgin Galactic, which hope to send space tourists to 110 kilometres (68 miles) above the Earth’s surface. But Lopez-Urdiales says it will still be high enough to see the curvature of the blue planet below, framed against the blackness of space. Astronauts say this produces a profound feeling known as the overview effect – and Lopez-Urdiales says the “change of perspective” will encourage passengers to take more care of the Earth after their trip.
Watch the 360-degree video below of an unmanned test flight – at about half the scale of the real thing.
And the bloon may offer other advantages. It should give you longer to linger over the view, for instance – whereas a rocket-powered flight may only spend a few minutes at the peak of its arc. “It’s like either watching a trailer for a movie – or watching the whole movie,” says Lopez-Urdiales. “That’s a critical difference between spaceplane and balloon.” What’s more, the bloon will save burning so many fossil fuels, making it more environmentally friendly. Since it will not be carrying explosives, it should also be a lot safer.
Monica Grady, a planetary scientist at the Open University, says the general concept “sounds amazing”, although she does question the scheme’s green credentials. “Helium is not called a rare gas for no reason, and it is a non-renewable resource,” she points out.
Ultimately, Lopez-Urdiales does not see the bloon as direct competition for other forms of space tourism, but an alternative experience.
Frederick Jenet at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and a director of SpaceX’s partner Stargate, agrees. “Zero2infinity’s bloon project provides another avenue for people to connect with the dream of space exploration,” he says. It may not appeal for people who have dreams of “Captain Kirk/JJ Abrams style space travel”, he adds. Instead, he thinks the bloon is better suited “for customers that want fewer bumps, shakes, and free-falls, and more of a quiet and meditative environment that would allow careful contemplation of the world we live in”.
Lopez-Urdiales is now seeking approval with the European Aviation Safety Agency and the US Federal Aviation Association, with a plan to launch the first flights in 2018. “I’ve got a spacesuit tailor-made for myself and I hope to use it sooner rather than later,” he says.
Note: The 360-degree viewing experience works best in Chrome desktop... if you're having trouble loading it or can't look around once the video begins, try watching on YouTube.
David Robson is BBC Future’s feature writer. He is @d_a_robson on twitter.
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