Balloon company plans to carry tourists on a long trip to space, or close enough to it

Balloon company plans to carry tourists on a long trip to space, or close enough to it

Mercedes this morning let us know it’s teaming up with a company called Space Perspective, which will offer paying passengers a first-class ticket to space via a balloon.

Well, not space. The vehicle they’d fly is trademark-dubbed the SpaceBalloon, but the targeted altitude is 100,000 feet. That’s well shy of the 50-mile (264,000 feet) boundary for space recognized by NASA, and even shier of the internationally recognized Kármán Line at 100 kilometers (328,000 feet). Though because the atmosphere simply gets thinner the higher you go, there’s no real hard boundary to space, so calling it space is fair game. Air Force legend Col. Joe Kittinger called it a “space environment.” More on him in a moment.

Whatever you call it, that’s damned high — 100,000 feet is a serious altitude, three times higher than the airlines fly. From there, passengers will see the curvature of the planet and the blackness of space. And Space Perspective promises they’ll see all this from a gondola — the company calls the pressurized capsule Spaceship Neptune — featuring the biggest windows ever provided for space tourists. From the renders at the company’s website, they look massive. Best of all, the spacefarers will be taking part in a six-hour journey: two hours each for ascent and descent, and two hours at altitude. Other space tourism operations featuring suborbital flights are at peak altitude for mere moments. Though unlike those flights, the balloon customers won’t experience weightlessness as they won’t be in freefall. 

More advantages: They’ll get a first-class in-flight meal, cocktails and access to a lavatory. (Not sure if that’s a closed system or whether passenger output is expected to burn up on reentry.)

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What’s Mercedes’ role in all this? It’s going to provide Mercedes-Maybach electric vehicles to transport Space Perspective’s trademark-capital-E Explorers to the launch site. The presence of Maybachs hints at the clientele they’re going for — tickets for a flight will cost $125,000. It sounds like Maybach will also contribute to the capsule interior design.

Space Perspective calls this the first carbon-neutral trip to space, though high-altitude balloons use helium, which is not a greenhouse gas but is a byproduct of natural gas production. It’s certainly greener than a rocket.

For some perspective on what 100,000 feet is like: In 1960, Air Force Capt. (later Col.) Joe Kittinger rode a balloon to 102,800 feet — and then parachuted from it. He was in freefall headfirst dive for 4 minutes and 36 seconds before deploying a drogue parachute at 18,000 feet. His records for highest jump and fastest speed achieved by a human without an aircraft (614 mph) went unbroken for 52 years.

Here’s Kittinger talking about the jump, and footage of the jump itself. Fascinating guy, a real American Hero. He died in 2022 at age 94.

Then in 2012, Red Bull’s Felix Baumgartner rose to 127,852 feet, parachuted, and became the first human to break the sound barrier with his body, hitting 843.6 mph. He opened his chute at 8,400 feet. 

Two years later, Alan Eustace, a retired SVP of engineering at Google, broke Baumgartner’s record, flying to 138,889 feet before jumping, an altitude record that still stands.

In videos of these jumps, you get a sense of what 100,000 feet will look like for Space Perspective’s customers. 

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