The World View manufacturing facility in Tucson, Arizona contains what looks like the world’s largest wallpaper-pasting table. At 540ft-long (165 metres), the bench stretches into the distance within an otherwise mostly empty warehouse. Lying across the top is the fragile translucent fabric of a giant plastic bag.
This carefully engineered polyethylene envelope – which will fill to the size of a football stadium – is designed to carry a pressurised gondola on a voyage to the edge of space.
Drifting across the top of the stratosphere, 20 miles (32 kilometres) above the Earth, six passengers will be able to relax in their comfy seats and look out through an enormous bay window. Supping drinks from the bar, they can use the on-board wifi to send selfies to their friends far below.
After two hours of cruising above the clouds, the pilot will release the balloon, allowing the capsule to slowly descend to Earth under a giant steerable paragliding wing.
World View’s vision for high altitude flights to the outer atmosphere is not some distant dream. Google executive Alan Eustace’s recent record-breaking parachute jump was with the company’s technology. Now, at $75,000 (£60,000) a seat, World View plans to fly space tourists and has recruited retired Nasa astronaut, Ron Garan, to captain the ship.
“As we ascend, we’ll watch the sky turn from blue to black,” says Garan, who us presenting his plans at BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit in Sydney, Australia, today. “We’ll be able to see the curvature of the Earth, the thinness of the atmosphere, we’ll get to see our sun as a star against a black sky.”
Garan, a former US military fighter and test pilot, has spent more than 177 days in orbit during two missions to the International Space Station (ISS). He has flown in the Space Shuttle, Russian Soyuz and has carried out four spacewalks. Garan can also lay claim to be the first astronaut to attempt to order a delivery pizza from orbit.
Since leaving Nasa, Garan has devoted his life to sharing what he calls the “orbital perspective”. He has written a book, paints oil pictures of the Earth and is even making a documentary feature film.
“Space,” he says, “changed me.”
“I believe there’s a profound, transformative potential in seeing our planet from the vantage point of space,” says Garan. “The more people that have that perspective, that can see our planet as a whole living system, the better off all of us on the Earth are going to be.”
When he left the planet for the first time on space shuttle Discovery in 2008, he says he was struck by how thin the atmosphere was. “It shouldn’t be a surprise, right?” he says. “There’s thousands of pictures of the Earth but until you actually see it with your own eyes, it’s really sobering and scary to think that’s what’s keeping every living thing on the planet alive.”
“The other thing that really hit me was the sobering contradiction between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life for a significant number of its inhabitants – it really hits you in the gut with a sadness but it doesn’t have to be this way. We have the power, the resources and the technology to solve many, if not all, of the problems we face.”
Anyone who has hung around much with astronauts will know that not all are this interesting, articulate or passionate about the transformative effects of spaceflight. Astronauts are not recruited for their poetic turn of phrase. There has long been an argument that the best way to convey the Earth’s fragility would be to fly artists, musicians or maybe world leaders into space instead so they can return with a new perspective.
“I was trying to figuratively transport people to this higher vantage point where they could see all the pieces of the puzzle – what picture they paint for our global society,” says Garan. “Now I can literally transport people to the edge of space where I believe many will have profound transformations in the way they see our world.”
At $75,000, the World View balloon concept is beyond the means of most of us. Its price, however, puts it within reach of many more people than a trip to orbit – a tourist flight to the ISS, for instance, will set you back $50m (£40m) million. Passengers will also experience a much longer flight than the short supersonic thrill rides and few minutes of queasy weightlessness offered by rivals such as Virgin Galactic.
You can, however, argue that 20 miles above the Earth is not technically space. The officially recognised boundary is known as the Karman line at 62 miles or 100 kilometres. “It’s fair to call it a spacecraft,” argues Garan. “We’re pretty close to a vacuum, with all the thermal concerns and pressure concerns, it’s a space-rated vehicle.”
With backing from the local Tucson authorities, World View is currently building a new balloon factory and spaceport at the city’s airport. While its prototype passenger gondola takes shape, the company is developing the first of its ‘stratolites’. Designed to compete, at a fraction of the cost, with satellites, these high altitude robotic platforms would be fitted with anything from scientific sensors or cameras to communication systems – perhaps providing broadband to a remote area or TV pictures for a major sporting event.
In the meantime, with a prototype Voyager capsule under construction, Garan is in training. “As you can imagine, there’s an extensive flight test programme we’ll be embarking on,” he says. “It’s going to be a lot of challenge and a lot of fun.
“I’m learning to fly parachutes and then we’re going to step up to paragliding,” he says. “A series of step-by-step processes to be able to get this very heavy capsule flown back with eight people on board and touching down without spilling anyone’s drinks.”
World View is not the only company looking to exploit balloons. Spanish firm, Zero2infinity, has similar space tourism ambitions and Google is developing high-altitude balloons to bring broadband to remote communities.
Unlike many other space tourism concepts – particularly the whizzy spaceplanes – Garan says there is a deeper philosophy underlying this venture. And he can’t wait to turn on the fasten seatbelt signs and launch into the sky. “I miss space very much – it is a profound experience to see our planet from that vantage point,” he says. “The more people that have that broader definition of home, the better off we’re all going to be.”