A privately owned start-up company is developing a pressurized capsule, aiming to start selling tickets for stratospheric balloon rides with an expected launch date in 2017.
Carrying six passengers and two pilots on every trip, the World View company – an offshoot of Paragon Space Development - promises several hours of magnificent space-like views from the altitude of 30,000 km for about £46,400 per ticket.
The capsules would be propelled by a 1.1 million cubic-meter helium balloon and a equipped with a steerable parafoil - an inflatable wing-shaped parachute, to secure its safe return to Earth.
The parafoil – a main safety feature of the system, will remain deployed and attached to the capsule throughout the ride.
"The balloon you're under is the thickness of a dry cleaner bag. It's very thin material by necessity to get you so high. That's where the technical risk lies,” said Paragon co-founder and chief executive Taber MacCallum.
“The risks of decompression of the spacecraft or life-support systems failures are really pretty small. We've got lots of redundant systems and we can return to lower altitudes pretty quickly," he said, explaining that failures of scientific balloons though rare, can happen every now and then.
"That's really what took us to having this para-wing, or parafoil always open so that from just about any altitude the vehicle could safely glide back," he said.
The ride to the highest point of the journey, twice as high as the travel altitude of commercial jets, is expected to take 90 minutes to two hours. The capsule will then stay hanging in the stratosphere for about two hours before commencing a 25 to 40 minute descent.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the capsule has to meet the same safety requirements as a manned spacecraft orbiting the Earth.
"At Paragon's intended altitude, water and blood boil, and an unprotected person would rapidly experience fatal decompression," the FAA, which oversees commercial spaceflight in the United States, wrote in a letter Paragon provided to Reuters.
Unlike companies such as Virgin Galactic, the stratospheric balloon ride won’t offer any experience of weightlessness, as it will reach the maximum altitude of about one third of that of sub-orbital planes.
The company, planning to operate from a launch base in New Mexico, known as Spaceport America, believes the recently discovered luxury adventures market is not yet saturated.
So far, 650 people have paid deposits to secure a ride with World View, which is about one third of the price of a ride on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two. Virgin’s founder Richard Branson has recently claimed to start commercial operations during the summer of 2014.