Newest Space Tourism Venture To Dangle Travelers From A Helium Balloon

Helium Balloon Space Tourism Flight
Photo: World View Enterprises, Inc

Another day, another space tourism venture announced-but this one caught our attention for being a little different from most. Rather than shooting travelers up in rockets, an American company says it’s planning to dangle space tourists in a capsule attached to a helium balloon.

World View Enterprises will use a helium balloon to slowly lift travelers up to the edge of space as they sit in a luxurious space capsule. After the ride is over, the capsule will detach from the helium balloon and float back down to Earth with the aid of a parachute. While that all sounds a little precarious, the company says balloons like this have been sent into space for decades and the whole process is actually quite low-risk.The helium balloon rides will take travelers up about 20 miles into the sky. Although that’s not technically space, which is around 60 miles up, travelers will still be in for a nice view that includes being able to see the curvature of the earth.

And if space travel has mostly sounded like the domain of the super rich so far, the good news is that the balloon space trip will be somewhat more affordable than the other options that have been proposed. A two-hour journey will set you back about $75,000, which is a fair deal cheaper than Virgin Galactic’s space flights that cost a quarter of a million dollars. Tickets for the World View space flights are expected to go on sale in a few months.

Space Tourists: a cinematic journey to the ISS (w/ Audio Interview)

Space Tourists airs tonight on the Documentary Channel at 8pm & 11pm


When Anousheh Ansari boarded the International Space Station on September 20th, 2006, she became the first self-funded female, the first Iranian citizen, and the fourth human overall to enter the Earth’s orbit as a coveted ‘space tourist’.

After building and selling a large telecom business, Ansari had decided that she would pay over $20 million USD to take a ride on the Russian Soyuz TMA-9 and orbit Earth as a crew member of the International Space Station for 8 days. While training as a backup for Daisuke Enomoto, who failed to meet the required medical qualifications, Ansari was notified that her lifelong dream would be fulfilled – with only one month remaining before liftoff.

Meanwhile, without Ansari’s knowledge, a charismatic Swiss filmmaker had begun to collect material for a documentary that explored the peculiar circumstances of the Russian space tourism industry. Gathering footage at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia and at the Baikonur Cosmodrome (the Soyuz’s launch facility), filmmaker Christian Frei began to lay the foundation for what would become the first documentary to uncover a highly exclusive and secretive world.

The finished product, Space Tourists, debuted in the US at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Thought it never had an overwhelming reception in North America, it is arguably one of the most fascinating travel-themed documentaries to have been produced in recent years and a must-see for anyone with a sense of adventure or a distant dream of venturing to space.

Frei’s film uncovers many facets of the Russian space tourism program that are especially compelling to watch unfold on the big screen.

From the pre-launch rituals at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, to the group of men that make a living by hunting down and recovering the enormous scrap metal that falls to Earth from every Soyuz launch; Frei’s film captures an incredible spectrum of physical environments, people/cultures, and brilliantly contrasts the magnificence of spaceflight in direct contrast with the trivial hardships of life on Earth.

It’s a film that’s both visually arresting and offers to bring the viewer on a journey with each of the characters that it follows – from training to touchdown and everywhere in between.

Space Tourists is currently being featured on the Documentary Channel airing tonight at 8pm and 11pm, or available on DVD via the Documentary Channel online store.

Click below for an exclusive, uncut interview with Anousheh Ansari & filmmaker Christian Frei:

Dirt-Road Driving To Explore Spaceport America


In the wilderness of New Mexico, set in the dry, scrubby desert under a crystalline pale blue sky, is a construction site with a bombastic and cartoonish name, incomplete but already a monument to the hubris of interstellar exploration or maybe to tax-payer financed public-private partnerships of indeterminate future success.

Spaceport America, a beautiful collection of Googie-inspired hangars and control centers at the foot of the San Andres Mountains, will soon be the fully operational home of Virgin Galactic, the Richard Branson-backed tourism concern that plans to shoot rich people into sub-orbital space for $200,000 a ride.

The Spaceport could be the next Cape Canaveral, drawing tourists and geeks to see the future of manned (and unmanned) American space exploration. It could be a massive government boondoggle, a wasted $209 million investment that never pays back the people of New Mexico who financed its construction. Or it could be something entirely different. So I drove north out of Las Cruces to see it for myself.

Traveling the American Road – Spaceport America


My guide for the trip, David Wilson, a spokesman for the Spaceport, met me early in the morning in Las Cruces, before the sun started pummeling southern New Mexico with heat. In the cool air, refueling our SUVs before the trek into the desert, he filled me in on the back story of the Spaceport.

With open airspace and rocket scientists aplenty–White Sands Missile Range is just 30 minutes from Las Cruces–the Spaceport is seen by boosters as a job-creation engine in a state badly in need of high-paying, high-tech jobs. As a launch facility, the Spaceport has already hosted 13 rocket launches, even as construction continues on the main terminal, where Virgin Galactic will run its consumer-friendly show.

David and I drive north, turning off the interstate onto an improved dirt road toward Upham, New Mexico, a whistle stop ghost town that’s still on maps, despite having been abandoned by its few residents. We ford mud holes, drive through ranches, steer around cattle and eventually roll up to a guard shack that looks like something out of X-Files. There are a few high clouds in the sky and the heat is already building as our names are ticked off a very imposing clipboard.

Visitor badges in hand, we drive down to the apron, in awe of the main Foster + Partners terminal, in glass and hand-formed steel, cut to mimic the landscape, its pre-weathered finish looking like Richard Serra sculpture turned architectural element. David walks me through the site, where visitors can watch Virgin astronauts prepping for missions, where launch commanders will monitor spaceflights, where offices of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority will soon be located, where the fuel dump sits, isolated safely off in the distance, nowhere near the multi-million dollar 10,000-foot runway that could service the Space Shuttle, if it still flew.

It feels small, this place in the desert where grand dreams are soon meant to thrive. It’s certainly more intimate than Kennedy Space Center, where many spectators–myself included–consider themselves lucky to be 10 miles from the launch pad. But can it, and its silly name, really inspire us the way JFK and Alan Shepard and the Saturn V and the Space Shuttle did?

NASA administrator Charles Bolden says his agency is committed “to continuing human spaceflight and taking the necessary–and difficult–steps to ensure America’s leadership in human spaceflight for years to come.” But Spaceport America, almost complete and planning its first manned Virgin Galactic spaceflight, asks us if the private sector can do it better. They just need a $209 million investment from New Mexico to get off the ground.

Space junk is out of control, scientists say

space junkIt’s a dilemma faced by every adventure traveler: to find the perfect remote spot untouched by modernity, free from cell phones, television, and trash. Of course there is no such place, not even in space. In fact, the orbital detritus of modern life can be downright dangerous, scientists warn.

A new report from the National Research Council says there are so many bits of trash in orbit, ranging from defunct satellites to fragments like nuts and bolts, that they’re bumping into each other, breaking apart, and making more trash. Around 22,000 large pieces of space junk are tracked from the ground, occasionally prompting the International Space Station to maneuver out of the way, and there are hundreds of thousands of more pieces too small to be detected. It amounts to a cloud of trash surrounding the earth, as this NASA image shows.

This puts current astronauts and future space tourists in peril. With the high velocities objects achieve in orbit, it’s like having hundreds of thousands of bullets flying around the Earth.

space junkAnd it’s getting worse. The BBC reports two satellites crashed in 2009 and broke apart. Also, the Chinese tested a satellite killer in 2007 that successfully smashed up its target into more than 150,000 pieces larger than a centimeter. The U.S. and Soviet Union tested similar weapons back in the 1960s and 1970s, creating their own clouds of debris.

Several manned spacecraft have been hit by space debris. Two Shuttle missions have had radiator panels in the cargo bay punctured by debris. The International Space Station and Mir have both suffered numerous impacts. Sometimes the damage is caused by natural micrometeorites.

One certain impact by space debris was in 1983 when a fleck of paint smacked into the space shuttle Challenger’s front window and left a crater, as you can see in this NASA image.

If a fleck of paint can do this to the Space Shuttle, imagine what an old rocket booster could do.

Forgotten space pioneer: 50th anniversary Alan Shepard’s historic flight

space, Alan ShepardFifty years ago today Alan B. Shepard Jr., became the first American in space when he flew in the Freedom 7 mission. He got 116.5 miles up and his flight lasted 15 minutes, 28 seconds. He made history, but has been generally forgotten.

Why? Because he was the second man in space. Yuri Gagarin made it into space 23 days earlier and won the second round of the US-Soviet space race. The Soviets won the first round too, when they got the first satellite into orbit in 1957.

Neither man achieved full orbit, but they did prove you could survive the trip and they paved the way for future space missions. Both deserve to be remembered.

NASA has an excellent interactive webpage about the mission and the capsule he flew in is on display at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Shepard was an alum (Class of 1945) so needless to say they’re pretty proud of him over there.

Shepard later landed on the Moon in the Apollo 14 mission and drew laughs and criticism when he played golf in low gravity. You can see the Apollo 14 command module at the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

[Photo courtesy NASA]