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Floating into near-space on helium power

Author Jacqueline Detwiler Illustration James Provost

howitsdoneCommercial space flights are well on their way to becoming a reality, but let’s be honest: They won’t be comfortable: NASA’s zero-G training flight is nicknamed the “vomit comet” for a reason. For those who’d like to see the curvature of the Earth sans barf bag, and preferably with a cocktail, a company called World View Enterprises has developed a capsule that slowly ascends to an altitude of nearly 20 miles by balloon, similar to the way Red Bull Stratos daredevil Felix Baumgartner did before his record-setting 2012 supersonic skydive. Trips, which are expected to start in 2016, will take between four and eight hours and cost $75,000. Here’s how they’ll do it.

  1. Most space flights plan to rise quickly and then descend, like a rollercoaster. In contrast, World View will ascend under a helium balloon, making the trip relatively peaceful. To that end, the capsule will be big enough for people to be able to stand and walk around—to the bar and to four segmented round windows.
  2. Safety is the first priority for commercial near-space flights, so a large steerable parafoil will hang above the capsule during the ascent as a backup in case anything goes awry. On the way down, the pilots will use the same parafoil to parasail back to earth, deploying a pair of landing skids and steering their way to a comfortable landing.
  3. Though technically passengers will not enter space, the eight-person capsule will conform to standards for vehicles in low Earth orbit—meaning it will use pressurization and radiation hardening to protect un-spacesuited passengers from near-vacuum, radiation, extreme thermal environments and micrometeroids as effectively as the International Space Station does.

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