[This is very cool. Balloons can go much higher than aircraft. You will be exposed to a lot of radiation since you're almost in space. Jan]
Ever wanted to see the cosmos, but not too keen on buckling-up for a rocket’s high-g, explosively-controlled ascent into space? You’re in luck: Space Perspective will bring you there in a balloon.
The Titusville, Florida-based company just completed assembly of their first pressure vessel, a test capsule of their Spaceship Neptune that Space Perspective will use as they begin a series of test flights of their trademarked "SpaceBalloon" ascent system. If everything goes smoothly during the vehicle’s shakedown flights, the company hopes to begin flying people to the edge of space as early as the end of this year.
Space Perspective recently unveiled Spaceship Neptune to the public, posting photos of the capsule to X (formerly Twitter). "Introducing Spaceship Neptune – Excelsior, our finished test capsule!," the company wrote in the post. "With the largest windows ever flown to space and a spherical design that allows for the roomiest interior of any human spaceflight capsule ever made"
Space Perspective was founded by CEOs Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, who also co-founded Paragon Space Development Corp. Life support and thermal control systems from Paragon have been included in the designs of every human-rated spacecraft the United States has ever flown, and now the duo are using their over 40 years of experience in the aerospace industry to offer people a more accessible way to see the Earth like never before.
"We definitely have the world’s experts doing this," Poynter said in an interview with Space.com. "We are completely focused. We’re focused on getting commercial flight as efficiently and completely safely and quickly as we can."
Space Perspective has named their first Spaceship Neptune capsule Excelsior, in a nod to a high-altitude balloon flight program known as Project Excelsior, pioneered by Joe Kittinger in the late 1950s.
Excelsior weighs just over seven tons, and will be lifted to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere by a balloon that stretches more than 600 feet (183 meters) tall.
Unlike other crew-rated spacecraft, designed and shaped for a fiery atmospheric re-entry, Excelsior’s carbon fiber shell was built in the shape of a sphere, measuring 16 feet (4.9 meters) in diameter.
The interior design of the crewed Spaceship Neptune model includes accommodations for eight passengers, or "Explorers," as Space Perspective calls their customers, and a captain to serve as host for the luxurious lift to the top of the world. Inside the capsule, cushioned chairs sit in short rows on opposite sides, facing outward to view the planet through the vessel’s tall windows. The central area of the capsule is mostly empty, allowing passengers some room to stretch their legs, and includes a bar station and even a bathroom, which Space Perspective refers to as a "spa."
The "Spa" will be a refuge of sorts for passengers on Space Perspective’s Spaceship Neptune capsule. (Image credit: Space Perspective)
Excelsior is outfitted with far less luxury, but has been manufactured to pave the way for Space Perspective’s future crewed flights. Nearly every component inside and outside the test capsule has been connected to racks of sensors and strain gauges to capture every detail of data during the vehicle’s first flights.
One of Spaceship Neptune’s most complex features is the radiator system that sits like a cap on top of the capsule and helps mitigate the effects of the high levels of solar radiation the capsule will experience while hanging at high altitudes, exposed to the sun and unshielded by the atmosphere. The spacecraft’s heat regulation is also aided in part by the unique design of the capsule’s windows, which reflect much of the harmful UV wavelengths without compromising the view.
At the bottom of the capsule, a splash cone serves to stabilize and anchor the vessel after landing, which occurs at sea. To prevent the same phenomenon that causes a droplet shooting up from a body of water as an object plunges through its surface, Spaceship Neptune’s splashdown is stabilized by the conical device, which prevents that bounce-back effect and works as an anchor on the capsule as its passengers await retrieval.
Trips aboard one of Space Perspective’s balloon rides begin and end at sea, taking off from the deck of the company’s launch boat, Voyager. The ship is designed to carry up to two Spaceship Neptune capsules, and the company has plans to construct several capsules to offer their services from launch boats harbored across the world.
Full flight duration, including ascent and descent takes about six hours, and can move the capsule several hundred miles downrange from its liftoff point. Because of this, Space Perspective uses separate recovery vessels to retrieve landed capsules within about 15 minutes of splashdown. Amidst Space Perspective’s stacked house of experts, the same engineers who designed the Dragon recovery system for SpaceX’s boats Bob and Doug are responsible for the recovery hardware aboard Space Perspective’s boats for retrieving Spaceship Neptune.
Also like SpaceX’s Dragon, Spaceship Neptune capsules are designed to be reusable and are flown mostly autonomously. Or, the capsule can be operated remotely from Space Perspective’s mission control room, housed in one of the company’s three adjacent facilities in Titusville. Though navigational controls are limited in balloon flights, mission operators are able to monitor flight status conditions and intervene in the vehicle’s ascent and descent when needed. Flight captains are able to access those same systems onboard, and can also take control in the event of some kind of emergency, which the company has gone to great lengths to avoid.
Unlike the reusable capsules, Space Perspective’s SpaceBalloons are one-time-use. Each balloon is stitched together by hand, using load-bearing tape and carbon filaments to prevent tears. Assembly takes place inside a 700-foot (213-meter) long, white soft-top hangar next to the company’s mission control building, where materials are laid down piece by piece, and joined to form Spaceship Neptune’s massive lifting medium.
Right now, Space Perspective’s balloon hangar fits two rows of tables, each with its own balloon under assembly. Once in commercial operation, the company hopes to reach a production point of one balloon per table, per week, amounting to over 100 flights per year.
At launch, the balloon is pumped with buoyant hydrogen, which slowly fills the volume and floats the towering canvas to begin carrying its capsule for flight.
Like the lines on a basketball or beach ball, individual sections known as gores stripe the seams of the SpaceBalloon and reinforce its structural integrity to mitigate risk in the event of an unlikely tear. Should such an emergency arise, the 184 gores ribbed vertically around the balloon work as stops, preventing a tear from spreading. The sheer size of the balloon also means that it is able to maintain some stability in-flight, even if a small tear has formed.
However, in the event of a catastrophic emergency and complete failure of the balloon, supports connected to the capsule are equipped with parachutes to facilitate a slow, safe return to the surface.
An orange-haired woman and grey-bearded man stand peering through the open panel of a window port on a orbulous white capsule with tall, silver-trimmed windows.
Space Perspective Founders and CEOs Jane Poynter and Taber MacCullum peer through the window or Spaceship Neptune’s first completed test vehicle. (Image credit: Space Perspective)
On the other side of mission control, another building houses the hanger for Spaceship Neptune, which recently completed assembly ahead of its first test flights. In a social media post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the company shared photos of the newly-polished Excelsior, including an image with company founders Poynter and MacCullum leaning through one of the capsule’s open window ports.
"We’re going to be taking unprecedented numbers of people to space. Instead of using rockets, we use space balloons. Balloons, and space balloons are … they just afford this incredibly gentle flight. Right? There’s no high gs. There’s no zero-g, which for a lot of people is really disorienting. There’s no training, none of that.
So, if you can get on a commercial airplane, you can get on Spaceship Neptune. That actually opens up the market enormously to people who otherwise don’t feel comfortable going on a rocket, or just simply can’t go on a rocket, but still want that extraordinary experience of seeing our Earth from space."
What’s it take to run a flight like this?
The Space Perspective mission control room features several stations for monitoring flight status, weather and atmospheric conditions, and communication between Spaceship Neptune, its launch vessel and the recovery boat.
"We are about to enter a rigorous set of test flights. You see so many stations here [in mission control], because it’s engineers that are sitting in a lot of these because they’re monitoring their own systems during the flights … Part of the protocol is to have the spaceship [experience] faults, so that we can test all the backup systems. So, we have seats filled with a lot of engineers. When we get to commercial flight, there’ll be a lot fewer people. You don’t need it, because remember this spacecraft can fly itself. Of course we have complete control of it from mission control as well. And there’s also a mission control on the ship Voyager."
When do you expect to fly the first crewed tests of Spaceship Neptune, and when do you plan to fly aboard?
"My entire career has been in spaceflight and almost exclusively in human spaceflight, which is an incredible privilege to be able to be on that journey. I am undoubtedly going to be on one of the first, if not the first human flight that we do. You’ve got to believe it. If for no other reason than I actually do need to know that we have dialed-in this experience for our customers. I mean, our customers have high expectations of this flight, and we want to have not only that incredible view of the Earth be mind blowing, but the entire experience be that for our customers.
"We’re planning to have crewed flights this year. We’re going to go through a whole series of uncrewed test flights. We have to get through safety gates before we ever put a person in it. However, the current plan is that we do roughly 10 flights uncrewed, and then we have a series of flights that are crewed, and then we get into commercial operations around the end of ’24, early ’25."
According to a recent Space Perspective release, the company currently has more than 1,750 ticket holders who have reserved seats aboard Spaceship Neptune, and the expects that number to reach 4,000 by the end of the year.
What can Space Perspective "Explorers" expect from the experience?
A typical flight lasts six hours – two hours to ascend, two hours hovering at apogee, and then a two-hour descent.
"We launch from a ship, and we splash in the ocean.
So, imagine this, you get up early in the morning, maybe you slept overnight on the ship. You get up, it’s dark out, you step into this beautifully appointed, very comfortable capsule. You’re handed your beverage of choice as you sit down and strap yourself in for about the first 15 minutes of flight. So, when the spaceship is released from the deck, there’s a 600-foot tall balloon standing up above you. The entire vehicle very gently lifts off the deck. It’s going to space at 12 miles an hour. This is literally the opposite of rocket flight. It’s very slow, so it’s takes you two hours to get up there, but that’s also part of the beauty of this – it’s that you can take it all in and you’re not having to withstand all [physical exertions associated with rocket launches], which some people love, but not everybody.
So it takes you a couple of hours to get up there, then you’ll start to see the sunrise over the horizon, the curved horizon of our planet. And then you’ll see the thin blue line of atmosphere against that stark blackness of space, and the sun in the black sky and it’s just going to be mind blowing for people. If you’ve talked to astronauts, you hear about what’s often called the ‘overview effect,’ it is transformational for a lot of people. So we are giving people a lot of time to be up there – a couple of hours – so they can really absorb this experience, celebrate with a drink from our bar of whatever beverage you would like to have. Of course there will also be food along the way, and we have a loo and Wi-Fi so you can be telling everybody back home what’s going on during your flight.
Then there’ll be a two hour journey back down – splashdown in the ocean, a super safe way to do this. So you go up under the balloon and down under the balloon. No transfer to another kind of flight vehicle, which makes it a seamless experience and super safe. Another ship is right there, picks the capsule up out of the water, puts it on the deck. Everybody disembarks within about 15 minutes of splash."
Tickets for a ride to the edge of space aboard Space Perspective’s Spaceship Neptune currently cost $125k, but Poynter says the company has plans to make that price more accessible.
"In the future, we have plans to build a larger capsule for more people so that we can offer both a more exclusive experience with a smaller group of people, and then for larger groups of people at probably a reduced price. Somewhere well below $100,000."