Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Space Tourism: High-tech hot air balloon floats to 120,000 feet

Forget rockets or airplanes, World View Enterprises wants to take tourists to the edge of space and back via balloon, and they just may do so sooner rather than later.

The company tested an early unmanned prototype last week, successfully floating a high-tech hot air balloon to 120,000 feet.

Remote controllers then lowered the balloon back to 50,000 feet and released the main console from the balloon.

The detachable capsule, which will eventually house excited passengers, fell back to Earth and was guided to a safe, soft landing by its parafoil system.

The test flight launched out of Roswell International Air Center in Roswell, New Mexico, on June 18. The capsule landed roughly five hours later.

The "Tycho" prototype tested early last week is much smaller than what the final console and balloon will look like, but engineers are still happy with the success of the early launch and landing.

"The test validated the full flight profile of the spaceflight system," the company wrote in a press release.

"Our main objective was to have a small enough scale to minimize the expense, but large enough to scale well to the final system," said Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer at World View Enterprises.

"The ballooning experts we consulted assured us that about 10% scale would hold."

"That's the benefit of ballooning," added MacCallum. "We can do a lot of scaled unmanned flights."

World View plans to offer commercial flights to the stratosphere by 2016, with ticket prices projected at roughly $75,000 per seat. The first three planned flights are already booked full.

"I feel like we're on track," said MacCallum, though he admitted there's much work left to do.

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