Space. The final frontier of human exploration. And equally, the last bastion of hyper-exclusive tourism. But now a European company believes it has the solution to putting space tourism within reach. If you have a cool R2.4m to spare, that is.
The path of space tourism certainly hasn’t been an easy one. While the first space tourists — includingSA’s own Mark Shuttleworth — blasted off atop a Russian Soyuz rocket more than 20 years ago, a handful of one-percenters dropping $20m on a seat to the stars doesn’t really count as a tourism industry. And when NASA’s iconic Space Shuttle was mothballed in 2011, those Soyuz seats were needed for real astronauts, and space tourism largely ground to a halt.
While the first space tourists blazed a trail, the goal has long been to make space more accessible.
Of course, accessible is subjective, and even the cheapest tickets to space cost more than much of the world’s population will earn in their lifetime. To bring the price down and increase the number of seats available, over the past decade the focus has shifted from eye-wateringly expensive orbital journeys to — much cheaper — suborbital excursions.
Companies such as Virgin Galactic have already proved the concept, using a rocket-powered plane to reach the edge of space, while Blue Origin uses a more conventional rocket to make it up to an altitude of 62 miles (100km) above the Earth.
While their New Shepard module and booster are reusable, aside from the financial cost there’s a carbon impact too. Do we really need to burn thousands of tonnes of fossil fuels to send a few high-flyers on a joyride?
Zephalto aims to solve all of these problems in a single, elegant solution.
The French-based balloon company is a specialist in low-carbon balloon travel and has bold plans to launch luxury trips to the stratosphere within the next two years.
From a spaceport in France, with more to follow on other continents, passengers will travel in a striking pressurised capsule — dubbed Celeste — raised aloft by a vast balloon filled with helium and hydrogen. Celeste will carry six guests at a time — and far from the cramped and uncomfortable set-up of a conventional rocket — will feel more like a salon in space.
For this is certainly no rough-and-tumble space adventure.
During the six-hour flight — a 90-minute ascent and three hours in the stratosphere before returning — guests will enjoy gourmet eats by celebrated French chefs, and sip on wines poured by an on-board sommelier. What’s more, Joseph Dirand, who created the Balmain and Givenchy stores in Paris, has designed the capsule. So, in a nutshell, you’ll be comfortable. Which is what you’d expect for the ticket price of €120,000 (R2.4m) per seat. Zephalto aims to operate 60 flights per year, each carrying six passengers and two pilots.
Aiming to beat them to the stratosphere is a company with similarly inflated ideas. Space Perspective’s trips to the stratosphere will be a shade cheaper — €112 000 (R2.27m) — and aim to reach a maximum height of 30km, or 100,000 feet. Both operators will offer on-board Wi-Fi for posting selfies and live-streaming the experience. Sigh.
But it also begs the question: can these passengers honestly claim they’ve been into space?
The Zephalto balloon trips will top out at 15.5 miles — roughly 25km — above the earth. At 81,000 feet that’s nearly three times the height of commercial airlines, but a long way off the 100km where you’ll find the Kármán Line, widely accepted as the true edge of space.
“We choose [15.5 miles] high because it’s the altitude where you are in the darkness of space, with 98% of the atmosphere below you, so you can enjoy the curvature of the Earth in the blue line,” Vincent Farret d'Astiès, the founder of Zephalto, told Bloomberg. “You’re in the darkness of space, but without the zero-gravity experience.”
Which is, it feels, a little disappointing? The views from Zephalto will no doubt be life changing, offering an entirely new perspective on earth, but if I’m going to spend the kids’ inheritance on a ticket off the planet, I want to get a few zero-gravity thrills in too.