Nearly half of Americans want to travel to space.
But that means the other half doesn’t, according to a 2021 survey by ValuePenguin, a financial research site LendingTree. Nearly 40% said space travel was too risky, while others expressed concern about environmental impacts and costs.
Soon there will be an option that addresses those concerns, according to companies that plan to send passengers into “space”. Via high rise balloons.
In fact, balloons rise less than half the distance from the technical definition of space, but that’s still nearly three times higher than most commercial flights — and high enough to see the curvature of the Earth.
Instead of launching a bone rattling rocket, the balloons are “very nice,” said Jane Poynter, co-CEO of Space Perspective, which hopes to carry passengers to the stratosphere in 2024.
She said there are no “high levels” of facial wrinkle, training is not required and the trips are carbon-neutral either.
The Florida-based company is using hydrogen to power its six-hour flights, which Poynter said would be so smooth that passengers could eat, drink and walk around during the flight.
Hydrogen is being hailed as the “fuel of the future” – a potentially game-changing energy source that could change the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
But after a series of conversations with people in the field, CNBC Travel found a lack of consensus about its safety.
Stratospheric balloons aren’t new – they’ve been used in scientific and weather research since the early 1900s.
But transporting groups of passengers pay in it.
Former USAF pilot Joseph Kittinger (left) and Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner (right) – two of a small group of people who went to the stratosphere through a balloon – at “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on June 8, 2012 .
Paul Drinkwater | NBC International | Getty Images
Poynter was part of the team that helped former Google CEO Alan Eustace break the world free fall record when he jumped from a stratospheric balloon nearly 26 miles above Earth.
While Eustace was hanging under a balloon wearing a spacesuit, Space Perspective’s passengers would travel via a pressurized capsule, which can hold eight passengers and a pilot. She said the capsule is powered by a parachute system that has flown thousands of times without fail.
“In all the conversations we’ve had with people, safety is the first thing that appears,” Poynter said during a video call from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “This is really a safe way to go into space.”
85 year old PR problem
In December 2017, a hydrogen-filled balloon exploded at the Tucson, Arizona, facilities of a stratospheric balloon company called World View Enterprises.
At the time, Poynter was CEO of World View. She, business partner, and husband Taber MacCallum co-founded World View in 2012. They exited the company in 2019 and formed Space Perspective that same year.
Space Perspective’s co-CEOs, Tapper McCallum and Jane Poynter. They, along with six others, spent two years inside an enclosed terrarium known as Biosphere 2 in the early 1990s.
Source: Space Perspective
A report from the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health, obtained by CNBC under the Freedom of Information Act, said a manager at the site suspected “static electricity” that ignited the hydrogen. According to the news, the accident occurred during a ground test, while emptying the balloon, and did not cause serious injuries.
It is widely believed that electrostatic discharge, i.e. a spark of static electricity that ignited combustible hydrogen gas, caused the disaster of the airship Hindenburg in 1937.
But Peter Washabo, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said hydrogen was inappropriately blamed for the Hindenburg accident.
“The car’s outer covering was flammable. It is not clear what caught fire first – the cap or the hydrogen.” “The vehicle was running aggressively during a storm… I would say it was operational negligence.”
Technological advances have made hydrogen safer, Washabo said.
“A lot has changed in the past 100 years,” he said, noting that newer balloon materials are “better specifically about containing hydrogen.”
Interior view of the Neptune capsule with a space perspective.
Source: Space Perspective
Robert Knotts, a former engineering officer in the RAF and current board member of the Balloon Society of England agrees.
He co-authored an article in the Royal Aeronautical Society, a professional body for the aviation community, which states: “Modern materials and sensors can make a hydrogen balloon as safe as any helium balloon.”
Mention hydrogen with blimps or balloons and “everyone’s mind goes back to the Hindenburg – that’s the picture they have,” he said, calling the accident a “major PR problem” for the gas.
Meanwhile, hydrogen is now used to power electric cars, while airplanes (“God knows how many gallons of fuel are on board”) carry an inherent fire risk as well, he said.
Helium vs hydrogen debate
Ryan Hartmann, the current CEO of World View, told CNBC that the balloon flights for space tourism, which are scheduled to launch in 2024, will be powered by helium.
After noting that “our company is a completely different company today,” he said, “Our decision… is purely from the perspective of wanting to do something as safe as possible for passengers.”
He described the use of hydrogen to carry passengers into the stratosphere as an “unnecessary risk”.
Hartmann said hydrogen is used to release balloons when “the stakes are low,” which makes sense, he said, because it’s cheaper and is a higher quality lift gas.
A view of one of the World View’s space capsules, which is scheduled to launch from spaceports near the Grand Canyon in the United States and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in 2024.
Source: World View
In 2018, Poynter — World View’s CEO at the time — told CNBC that World View does not use hydrogen with its balloon systems.
She said her new company, Space Perspective, is now choosing to use it to join the fast-growing hydrogen economy.
“Helium is extremely rare and hospitals need it badly to test patients, launch communications satellites and conduct important research,” she said. “With helium shortages already occurring, it is unsustainable to use helium for large-scale space tourism flights.”
Additionally, “hydrogen has been shown to be very safe as a lifting gas,” she said.
movement into hydrogen?
The Space Perspective decision is part of a larger movement to return to hydrogen, said Jared Leidich, a former World View employee and current chief technology officer for Urban Sky, a stratospheric aerial photography company.
“Hydrogen can absolutely be a safe gas,” he said, noting that there was a previous “ton” for use in other regions of the world.
About whether he would ride a balloon in the stratosphere, Lyditch said, “Sure.” Hydrogen or helium? It doesn’t matter, he said, noting that hydrogen can make aspects of flight safer “because it’s a more efficient lift gas, the whole system can end up being smaller, which has some cascading benefits.”
He said he had already booked a seat — and paid a refundable $1,000 deposit — for the Space Perspective flight.
Knotts also said the gas choice “wouldn’t bother me, quite frankly.”
Others weren’t sure.
Kim Strong, an atmospheric physicist and chair of the physics department at the University of Toronto, told CNBC that she would “feel much safer with a helium-filled balloon.”
But Washapo of the University of Michigan said he was neutral about riding a stratospheric balloon.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s an H2 or it’s it,” he said in an email. “I’m even more in love with a powered car.”
He said that constant talk of an impending helium shortage has caused “nearly” all of the balloon companies that Lyditch works with to develop systems that are compatible with hydrogen and helium.
Brooklyn-based company Near Space Labs for imaging stratospheric balloons is currently using helium, but CEO Rima Matifosian said it is exploring hydrogen use in the future.
And the advantages of hydrogen are there. All problems with hydrogen are present as well, and everyone knows it. “It would be a very complex transition…it would require research…and the demand for this would also drive some research.”
EOS-X Space, the Madrid-based stratospheric balloon company preparing to launch space tourism flights from Europe and Asia, plans to make the switch.
“The first flight test in the next quarter will be powered by helium,” founder and CEO Kemal Kharpachi said. But “our engineers and our development and innovation team are working with hydrogen so that we will be the first to have this technology before 2024.”
Others cling to helium.
Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales, founder and CEO of Barcelona-based stratospheric balloon company Zero 2 Infinity, told CNBC that his company’s space tourism balloon flights will “of course” use helium.
“Our investors and customers want to avoid these types of fireworks at all costs,” he said by email, referring to a YouTube video showing a ground-test balloon exploding from World View.
He did not rule out future use of hydrogen, though, saying that his company could, after “a few thousand successful hydrogen flights, introduce it little by little in a manageable way to the crew of high-altitude flights.”
Lars Kalnag, a research scientist at the University of Colorado Laboratory of Atmospheric and Space Physics, agreed that using hydrogen could be an uphill battle because stratospheric tourism is a new and unproven project.
“Risking – or even the perception of risk – would be a significant obstacle, at least until the integrity of public order is well established,” he said.
not exactly “space”
While Hartmann and Poynter may disagree about what kind of gas to use, both have said that stratospheric ballooning is safer than rocket-based spaceflights — and much cheaper.
Tickets on the World View capsule cost $50,000 per seat, while Space Perspective is currently booking seats for $125,000. The two companies said all US-based flights were sold out in 2024.
Kallang said that unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX, stratospheric balloons don’t come close to space. Most balloons will travel 30 to 40 kilometers (about 19 to 25 miles), which is well below the internationally recognized boundary of space – the so-called “Kerman Line” – set at 100 kilometers above sea level.
It’s still high enough to see the “iconic thin blue line” of Earth’s atmosphere, Poynter said.
Attendees sit in a World View capsule prototype on display at the SXSW Festival held in Austin, Texas, in March 2022.
Source: World View
John Spencer, founder and president of the Space Tourism Association, said that stratospheric balloons are part of the “space community.”
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re providing a space experience with their balloon flights – and a person can experience a lot more than those who would be willing to board a rocket ship,” he said.
Spencer said he is Poynter’s friend and partner McCallumAnd He is interested in taking a balloon flight with their company.
“But I’d rather see them use helium,” he said.