About half of Americans want to go into space.
But that doesn’t mean the other half, according to Valupenguin’s 2021 survey, is one of LendingTree’s financial research websites. About 40% say space travel is extremely dangerous, while others worry about the environmental impact and cost.
According to companies planning to send passengers into “space” there will soon be an alternative that will address those concerns. Through high-altitude balloons.
In reality, balloons fly at less than half the technical definition of space, but it is still about three times longer than most commercial flight travel – and enough to observe the Earth’s curvature.
Instead of launching a bone-broken rocket, the balloons are “very soft,” said Jane Pointer, co-CEO of Space Perspectives, which hopes to take passengers into the stratosphere by 2024.
He says there is no need to face “high GS”, no need for training and travel does not release carbon emissions.
The Florida-based company is using hydrogen to power its six-hour journey, which Pointer says is going to be so smooth that passengers can eat, drink and walk during the flight.
Hydrogen is being hailed as the “fuel of the future” – a potential game-changing source of energy that could change the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.
But after a series of conversations with people in the field, CNBC found a lack of consensus on the safety of travel.
Stratospheric balloons are not new – they have been used for scientific and meteorological research since the early 20th century.
But among them is the transport group of passengers collecting fare.
Former U.S. Air Force pilot Joseph Keatinger (left) and Austrian daredevil Felix Bamgartner (right) – two of a small group that went into the stratosphere by balloon on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on June 8, 2012.
Paul Drinkwater | NBCU Universal | Getty Images
Poynter was part of the team that helped former Google executive Alan Eustace break the world freefall record when he jumped from a stratospheric balloon about 26 miles above the earth.
When Eustace was hanging under a balloon wearing a spacesuit, the passengers in the Space Perspective would travel through a pressure capsule that could fit eight passengers and one pilot, he said. The capsule was backed up by a parachute system that flew thousands of times without fail, he said.
During a video call from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Pointer said, “In all the conversations we have with people, safety comes first.” “It’s a really safe way to go into space.”
An 85-year-old ‘PR problem’
In December 2017, a hydrogen-filled balloon exploded in Tucson, Arizona, a stratospheric balloon company called World View Enterprise.
At the time, Pointer was the CEO of World View. She and her business partner and husband, Taber MacCallum, co-founded World View in 2012. They left the company in 2019 and formed Space Perspective the same year.
A report by the Arizona Department of Occupational Safety and Health obtained by CNBC under the Freedom of Information Act states that an on-site manager suspects that “static electricity” burns hydrogen. According to reports, the accident happened during a ground test when the balloon exploded and there were no serious injuries.
An electrostatic discharge, a spark of static electricity, is widely believed to have caused flammable hydrogen gas to cause the 1937 Hindenburg Airship Crash.
But Peter Washbagh, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan, said hydrogen was improperly blamed for the Hindenburg accident.
“It simply came to our notice then. It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. “The vessel was operated aggressively during the storm … I would say it was operational negligence.”
Washbagh says technological advances have made it safer to use hydrogen.
“A lot has changed in the last 100 years,” he said, adding that the new balloon materials are “especially good at holding hydrogen.”
A rendering inside the “Neptune” capsule of the Space Perspective.
Source: Space Perspective
Robert Knots, a former engineering officer in the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom and a current council member of the Airship Association of England, agreed.
He co-authored an article in the Royal Aeronautical Society, a professional organization for the space community, which states: “Modern equipment and sensors can make a hydrogen airship as safe as any helium airship.”
Mention hydrogen by airship or balloon and “everyone’s mind goes back to Hindenburg – that’s their picture,” he said, calling the incident a “major PR problem” for the gas.
Meanwhile, hydrogen is now used to power electric vehicles, while airliners (“God knows how many gallons of fuel are on board”) also carry the underlying fire risk, he said.
Helium vs. Hydrogen Debate
Ryan Hartmann, the current CEO of World View, told CNBC that its space tourism balloon flights, which are set to launch in 2024, will be powered by helium.
“Our company is a different company today,” he said, referring to: “Our decision … from the point of view of trying to do something as safe as possible for passengers.”
He called the use of hydrogen an “unnecessary risk” for transporting passengers into the stratosphere.
Hartmann says that hydrogen is used to launch balloons when the “risk is low”, which means, because it is cheap and a very high quality lifting gas.
A rendering of one of World View’s space capsules, to be launched in 2024 from the space port near the Grand Canyon in the United States and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
Source: World View
In 2018, Pointer – then the CEO of World View – told CNBC that World View does not use hydrogen with its balloon system.
But his new company, Space Perspective, is now choosing to use it to join the fast-growing hydrogen economy, he said.
“Helium is in short supply and hospitals are needed to test the very sick as well as to launch communication satellites and conduct vital research,” he said. “Helium deficiencies are already occurring. Using helium for space tourism flights is not sustainable.”
Also, “hydrogen has proven to be very safe as an extraction gas,” he said.
A movement of hydrogen?
The decision by Space Perspective is part of a larger movement to return to hydrogen, says Jared Leidich, a former employee of World View and current chief technology officer at Urban Sky, a stratospheric balloon aerial imagery company.
“Hydrogen can be absolutely safe gas,” he said, adding that there are “one ton” examples of its use in other parts of the world.
Whether he will run balloons in his stratosphere: “Of course,” Leidich said. Hydrogen or helium? It doesn’t matter, he said, Hydrogen could make the ride aspects safer “because it’s a more efficient lift gas, the whole system could be smaller, with some cascading advantages.”
He said he had already booked a seat – and paid a 1,000 refundable deposit for a Space Perspectives flight.
Knots added that the choice of gas “will not bother me, quite clearly.”
Others were not so sure.
Kim Strong, an atmospheric physicist and chair of the physics department at the University of Toronto, told CNBC that she would “feel safe with a helium-filled balloon.”
But Washabagh, of the University of Michigan, said he was planning to ride a stratospheric balloon.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s H2 or He,” he said in an email. “I like cars more.”
A complex transformation
The “almost all” balloon company Leidich works to develop systems compatible with hydrogen and helium, due to ongoing discussions about the upcoming helium deficiency, he said.
Near Space Labs, a Brooklyn-based stratospheric balloon imagery company, currently uses helium, but CEO Rema Matevosian says it is exploring the future using hydrogen.
“Hydrogen has advantages. Hydrogen has all the problems, and everyone knows it, “he said.” It’s going to be a very complex transformation.
EOS-X Space, a Madrid-based stratospheric balloon company that is preparing to launch space tourism flights from Europe and Asia, plans to change that.
“The first flight test next quarter will be powered by helium,” said founder and chairman Kemmel Kharbachi. But “our engineers and development and innovation team are working with Hydrogen so that we can be the first of this technology before 2024.”
Others are attached to helium.
Jose Mariano Lopez-Ordialles, founder and CEO of Barcelona-based stratospheric balloon company Zero 2 Infinity, told CNBC that his company’s space travel balloon rides would “definitely” use helium.
“Our investors and clients want to avoid such fireworks at any cost,” he said via email, referring to a YouTube video showing the World View Ground Test balloon explosion.
Although he did not rule out the possibility of using hydrogen in the future, he said his company could “after a few thousand successful hydrogen flights, then gradually turn it into a controllable way for high-altitude flight crews.”
Lars Kalnaz, a research scientist at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, agrees, saying the use of hydrogen could be a difficult battle since stratospheric tourism is a new and unproven venture.
“Risk – or even perception of risk – will be a significant obstacle,” he said, “at least until the security of the overall system is very well established.”
Not exactly ‘space’
Although Hartman and Pointer may disagree on which gas to use, they both argue that stratospheric balloon rides are much safer than rocket-based space travel – and much cheaper.
Tickets cost $ 50,000 per seat in the World View capsule, while Space Perspective currently reserves seats for $ 125,000. Both airlines have stated that all US-based flights will be sold by 2024.
Yet unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX, stratospheric balloons do not go close to space, Kalnaz says. Most balloons will travel at altitudes of 30 to 40 kilometers (about 19 to 25 miles), with the internationally recognized boundary for space – the so-called “Kerman Line” – set at 100 kilometers above sea level.
Still, it’s high enough to see the “iconic thin blue line” of the Earth’s atmosphere, Pointer says.
Participants sit on a prototype of the World View Capsule at the SXSW Festival in Austin, Texas in March 2022.
Source: World View
John Spencer, founder and president of the Space Tourism Society, says stratospheric balloons are part of the “space community”.
“As far as I’m concerned, they’re providing a space experience with their balloon flight – and a lot more people can experience that than anyone who wants to get on a rocket ship,” he said.
Spencer said he is a friend of Pointer and his partner McCallum, And interested in taking balloon flights with their company.
“But I’d rather see them use helium,” he said.