Space tourism startup plans big-ticket balloon rides to the atmosphere's edge

A startup aims to take space sightseers to the edge of Earth's atmosphere, with Space Perspective planning to launch balloon rides from Space Florida. The latest example of space tourism, the six hour balloon trips will include two hours at the very fringes of space, 100,000 feet above sea level.

It should be enough for a mesmerizing view, Space Perspective promises, and a rare one. "Flown by a pilot, Neptune takes up to eight passengers called "Explorers" on a six-hour journey to the edge of space and safely back, where only 20 people have been before," the company explains.

Spaceship Neptune is a high-performance balloon and capsule combo. The former is an envelope of hydrogen roughly 650 feet tall, which over the course of two hours will lift the pressurized capsule in which the pilot and "Explorers" ride. The experience will be far from a typical plane ride, however.

Instead, the capsule is more akin to a luxury patio. It'll have a refreshments bar and a lavatory, and Space Perspective says it'll be sufficiently roomy for things like weddings or other events to be held inside. A bubble ceiling and 360-degree windows will allow for full panoramic views, protected with the same gold tint that is used on astronauts' helmets for UV protection. It won't only be passengers on each balloon ride, either, with the company also planning to transport research payloads.

After two hours gliding, there'll be a gentle two hour descent. The capsule will splash down in the ocean, and it along with the balloon will be retrieved by a ship that will bring the passengers back to shore. Spaceship Neptune will then be reused for the next flight.

Unsurprisingly, safety tech has been a particular consideration. While hydrogen gas got a bad reputation during the age of zeppelins and airships, Space Perspective says it's actually far more environmentally friendly than helium which is now in relatively short-supply. The balloon is connected to the capsule by a backup parachute system.

"The chute is partially pre-opened," the company explains, "so it can quickly and seamlessly take over from the primary flight system, the balloon, in the extremely unlikely event that is needed."

Perhaps of equal importance, Space Perspective has made sure the capsule is connected. Passengers will be able to post to social media and more as they glide, to get the most out of of tickets expected to cost around $125,000 apiece. Expressions of interest are already being taken.

Spaceship Neptune expects to begin test flights in 2021, and is already taking research payload reservations, though passenger flights may take another 3 or so years to begin. It'll launch from Space Florida, the former landing facility for the Space Shuttle, though the company also intends to operate a service from Cecil Spaceport in Florida, and eventually expand to other locations around the world.