Forget Paris, Istanbul and an exotic vacation trekking across Nepal. No, for the world’s wealthiest, their next luxury adventure will be the black sky of space.
Recreational space tourism is poised to take off for those who can afford the high price tag. A handful of companies has already embarked on what some have dubbed “the final frontier of luxury travel.” First there was Space Adventures, which took customers paying in excess of $20 million tothe International Space Station between 2001 and 2009. Then, there was Elon Musk’s SpaceX and XCOR Aerospace. And, perhaps, the best-known venture of the last few years is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which will begin rocketing passengers into space in 2015 for $250,000.
The enthusiastic embrace of galactic tourism—and its promises of delivering “transformative experiences” of Earth—is welcome news for space champion Jane Poynter. The British-born biospherian and author heads World View, a venture from Arizona-based Paragon Space Development Corporation, which specializes in life support infrastructure for extreme environments. Set for a debut launch in 2016, World View will lift high-styled, deep-pocketed voyagers in a pressurized capsule via a space balloon to nearly 100,000 feet, or to the edge of space. The $75,000 experience, Poynter promises, will bring them close to what space philosopher and writer Frank White calls “the ‘Overview Effect’—the unexpected emotional reaction and unparalleled perspective-shift that comes from seeing our planet suspended in space.”
“You hear astronauts describe seeing the curvature of the Earth from the outside as they are floating in the immensity of space, and the spectacular attachment they feel toward our planet,” says Poynter, who spent two years in Biosphere 2. “They have a complete change in perspective. We want to give people that experience.”
The experience will begin at pre-dawn—most likely in Page, Ariz., where the first launch site is set. Here, you’re met with a beautiful capsule resting in its cradle—elegant and sleek, a futuristic vision falling somewhere between “2001: A Space Odyssey” and 2016 reality. You, along with five other voyagers, step inside the capsule. Designed by British design studio Priestmangoode (known for outfitting the first class cabins of Thai Airways, Malaysia Airways and Virgin), the capsule looks as plush as a private jet: sumptuous seating, bathroom, bar and, of course, plenty of window space for 360-degree viewing.
“We’re still in the process of designing the interiors,” says Poynter. “With each design element, we want our passengers to feel like they are among the chosen few, sitting in a familiar yet comfortable environment. We also want the experience to be completely customized. Voyagers can shape the flight to their exact preferences.”
So, whether you want a Vesper martini in your hand as you watch the sun rise over the Earth’s horizon or want to eat bonbons while admiring the curvature of the planet, your wish is World View’s command. You can even connect to the Internet—a perk for those who cannot avoid the temptation of posting a space selfie on Instagram. Notes Poynter: “It’s very important that our passengers are able to share their experience with others.”
The out-of-this-world trip lasts about five hours. After liftoff, the capsule ascends for about two hours to an altitude of just over 100,000 feet—thanks to a lighter-than-air balloon that expands and decreases in density. Once the gas in the balloon expands to completely fill the balloon, the capsule stops ascending and reaches its target altitude. From here, you and your fellow passengers sail the stratosphere for another two hours. When it’s time to return to Earth, the pilot descends by venting gas from the balloon. The ParaWing takes over for the remainder of the flight, and the pilot releases the balloon. The capsule gently glides to a predetermined landing site—which can be as far as 300 miles from the launch site, depending on the speed of high-altitude winds. A ground crew helps you disembark the craft, and you are transported back to the launch site in Page.
“The whole trip is gentle and relaxing,” says Poynter. “There are no rockets, no vibrations. It’s designed so you can really sit up there and absorb the experience.”
You might be wondering at this point: how safe is it? There is always a measure of risk, of course, but World View certainly has technology on its side.
“We’ve been able to take advantage of technology that has been around for decades,” says Poynter. “The balloon has already been safely used in research for decades. We have the opportunity to build on that technology and find innovation within that framework. Safety is our No. 1 priority in the design and operation of these capsules.”
There will be several layers of backup systems—including parachutes—that are “mission critical.” And it doesn’t hurt that former astronaut Mark Kelly is director of flight crew operations for World View.
“Having Mark come on board was important because we needed someone who has been in space and understands the experience of seeing the Earth from 20 miles away,” says Poynter. “He has an amazing track record of flights. He understands the process.”
Only two decades ago, the idea of space tourism was a dream for the scientifically optimistic and a punch line for the cynical. Companies like World View and Virgin Galactic have proven—boldly—that space exploration is not only a reality, but also a much-desired destination for adventurous luxury travelers.
“Right now, we’re talking about going into orbit for short periods of time. But in the very near future, people will be going up to the moon and perhaps beyond,” predicts Poynter. “Space tourism is here to stay.”