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Firms plan to make use of balloons to go to space in 2024

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Nearly half of Americans need to travel to space.

But which means the opposite half doesn’t, based on a 2021 survey by ValuePenguin, one in all LendingTree’s financial research web sites. Nearly 40% said space travel was too dangerous, while others frightened about environmental impact and costs.

Soon there can be an option that addresses those worries, based on firms that plan to send passengers into “space” via high-altitude balloons.

In point of fact, the balloons rise lower than half the gap to the technical definition of space, but that is still nearly 3 times higher than most industrial flights travel — and high enough to see the Earth’s curvature.

Slightly than a bone-rattling rocket launch, balloons are “very gentle,” said Jane Poynter, co-CEO at Space Perspective, which hopes to take passengers to the stratosphere in 2024.

There are not any face-contorting “high Gs,” training is not required and trips don’t release carbon emissions either, she said.

The Florida-based company is using hydrogen to power its six-hour journeys, which Poynter said are going to be so smooth that passengers can eat, drink and walk around throughout the flight.  

Hydrogen is being hailed because the “fuel of the long run” — a possible game-changing energy source that might alter the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

But after a series of conversations with people in the sphere, CNBC Travel found an absence of consensus on its safety.

What’s latest?

Stratospheric balloons aren’t latest — they’ve been used for scientific and weather research for the reason that early twentieth century.

But transporting groups of paying passengers in them is. 

Former U.S. Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger (left) and Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner (right) — two of a small group of people that have gone to the stratosphere via balloon — on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on June 8, 2012.

Paul Drinkwater | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

Poynter was a part of the team that helped former Google executive Alan Eustace break the world freefall record when he jumped from a stratospheric balloon nearly 26 miles above Earth.

While Eustace hung under a balloon wearing a spacesuit, Space Perspective’s passengers will travel via a pressurized capsule, which may fit eight travelers and a pilot, she said. The capsule is backed up by a parachute system that has been flown hundreds of times without fail, she said.

“In all the conversations that we’ve with people, safety is the very first thing that comes up,” Poynter said during a video call from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. “This is actually the protected way of going to space.”

An 85-year-old ‘PR problem’

In December 2017, a hydrogen-filled balloon exploded on the Tucson, Arizona, facilities of a stratospheric balloon company called World View Enterprises.

On the time, Poynter was World View’s CEO. She and her business partner and husband Taber MacCallum co-founded World View in 2012. They exited the corporate in 2019 and formed Space Perspective the identical 12 months.

Space Perspective’s co-CEOs, Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter. They, together with six others, spent two years contained in the closed terrarium generally known as Biosphere 2 within the early Nineties.

Source: Space Perspective

A report by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, obtained by CNBC under the Freedom of Information Act, stated that an on-site manager suspected “static electricity” ignited the hydrogen. In keeping with the report, the accident occurred during a ground test, while the balloon was being deflated, and didn’t cause serious injuries.

An electrostatic discharge, i.e. a spark of static electricity, that ignited flammable hydrogen gas is widely believed to have caused the Hindenburg airship disaster in 1937.

But Peter Washabaugh, an associate professor of aerospace engineering on the University of Michigan, said hydrogen was inappropriately blamed for the Hindenburg crash.

“The outer covering of the vehicle was flammable. It shouldn’t be clear what caught fire first — the covering or the hydrogen,” he said. “The craft was being operated aggressively during a storm… I might say it was operational negligence.”

Washabaugh said technological advances have made using hydrogen safer.   

“Lots has modified within the last 100 years,” he said, noting that newer balloon materials “are specifically higher at containing hydrogen.”

A rendering of the inside the Space Perspective’s “Neptune” capsule.

Source: Space Perspective

Robert Knotts, a former engineering officer with the U.K.’s Royal Air Force and current council member of England’s Airship Association, agreed.

He co-authored an article within the Royal Aeronautical Society, an expert body for the aerospace community, which stated: “Modern materials and sensors could make a hydrogen airship as protected as any helium airship.”

Mention hydrogen with either airships or balloons and “everybody’s mind goes back to the Hindenburg — that is the picture they’ve,” he said, calling the incident a “major PR problem” for the gas.

Meanwhile, hydrogen is now used to power electric cars, while airliners (“God knows what number of gallons of fuel are on board”) carry inherent fire risks too, he said.

Helium vs. hydrogen debate

World View’s current CEO Ryan Hartman told CNBC that its space tourism balloon flights, that are scheduled to launch in 2024, can be powered by helium.  

After noting that “our company is a really different company today,” he said: “Our decision … is only from a perspective of wanting to do something that’s as protected as possible for passengers.”

He called the usage of hydrogen to hold passengers to the stratosphere “an unnecessary risk.”

Hartman said hydrogen is used to launch balloons when “the chance is low,” which is sensible, he said, since it’s cheaper and is a really high-quality lift gas.

A rendering of one in all World View’s space capsules, that are set to launch from spaceports near america’ Grand Canyon and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in 2024.

Source: World View

In 2018, Poynter — World View’s CEO on the time — told CNBC that World View doesn’t use hydrogen with its balloon systems.

But her latest company, Space Perspective, is now selecting to make use of it to hitch the rapidly growing hydrogen economy, she said.

“Helium is in very scarce supply and is required by hospitals for tests for the very ailing in addition to to launch communication satellites and conduct essential research,” she said. “With helium shortages already occurring, it’s unsustainable to make use of helium for space tourism flights at scale.”

Plus, “hydrogen has been proven to be very protected as a lift gas,” she said.

A movement to hydrogen?

Space Perspective’s decision is an element of a larger movement to return to hydrogen, said Jared Leidich, a former worker of World View and current chief technology officer on the stratospheric balloon aerial imagery company, Urban Sky.

“Hydrogen can absolutely be a protected gas,” he said, noting that there may be “a ton” of precedent for using it in other regions of the world.

As as to if he would ride a balloon into his stratosphere: “Absolutely,” said Leidich. Hydrogen or helium? It wouldn’t matter, he said, noting that hydrogen could make points of the ride safer “since it’s a more efficient lift gas, the entire system can find yourself being smaller, which has some cascading advantages.”

He said he’s already booked a seat — and paid a $1,000 refundable deposit — for a Space Perspective flight.

Knotts also said that the alternative of gas “would not hassle me, quite frankly.”   

Others weren’t so sure.

Kim Strong, an atmospheric physicist and chair of the University of Toronto’s Department of Physics, told CNBC she’d “feel safer with a helium-filled balloon.”

But University of Michigan’s Washabaugh said he’s on the fence about riding in a stratospheric balloon.

“It could not matter if it was H2 or He,” he said in an email. “I’m just more keen on a powered vehicle.”

A posh transition

Persistent talk of an impending helium shortage has caused “just about all” balloon firms Leidich works with to develop systems which can be compatible with hydrogen and helium, he said.

The Brooklyn-based stratospheric balloon imagery company Near Space Labs currently uses helium, but CEO Rema Matevosyan said it’s exploring using hydrogen in the long run.   

“The benefits of hydrogen are there. All the problems with hydrogen are there as well, and everybody knows it,” she said. “It’s going to be a really complex transition … it may take research … the demand for this can even drive among the research.”

EOS-X Space, a Madrid-based stratospheric balloon company that’s preparing to launch space tourism flights from Europe and Asia, is planning to make the switch.

“The primary flight test this next quarter can be powered by helium,” said founder and chairman Kemel Kharbachi. But “our engineers and the event and innovation team are working with hydrogen in order that we will be the primary before 2024 to have this technology.” 

Risk — and even the perception of risk — can be a big hurdle.

Lars Kalnajs

University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

Others are sticking with helium.

Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, the founder and CEO of the Barcelona-based stratospheric balloon company Zero 2 Infinity, told CNBC his company’s space tourism balloon rides will use helium “in fact.”

“Our investors and clients need to avoid in any respect costs these sorts of fireworks,” he said via email, referencing a YouTube video showing the World View ground test balloon explosion.

He didn’t rule out using hydrogen in the long run though, saying his company could, after “just a few thousand successful hydrogen flights, then little by little introduce it in a controllable approach to crewed high altitude flights.”

Lars Kalnajs, a research scientist on the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, agreed, saying hydrogen use might be an uphill battle since stratospheric tourism is a latest and unproven enterprise.

“Risk — and even the perception of risk — can be a big hurdle,” he said, “a minimum of until the security of the general system could be very well proven.”

Not exactly ‘space’

While Hartman and Poynter may disagree about which lifting gas to make use of, they each said stratospheric balloon rides are far safer than rocket-based space travel — and less expensive.

Tickets on World View’s capsule cost $50,000 per seat, while Space Perspective is currently reserving seats for $125,000. Each firms said all U.S.-based flights are sold out in 2024.

Yet unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX, stratospheric balloons don’t go near space, said Kalnajs. Most balloons will travel 30 to 40 kilometers (about 19 to 25 miles) high, which falls in need of the internationally recognized boundary for space — the so-called “Karman Line” — set at 100 kilometers above sea level.

Still, it’s high enough to see to see the “iconic thin blue line” of Earth’s atmosphere, said Poynter.

Attendees sit in a World View capsule prototype exhibited on the SXSW festival held in Austin, Texas, in March 2022.

Source: World View

John Spencer, the founder and president of the Space Tourism Society, said stratospheric balloons are a part of the “space community.”

“So far as I’m concerned, they’re providing an area experience with their balloon flights — and one many more people can experience than those that can be willing to get right into a rocket ship,” he said.

Spencer said he’s a friend of Poynter and her partner, MacCallum, and is fascinated by taking a balloon flight with their company.

“But I might relatively see them use helium,” he said.

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