An unexpected space race is underway between Richard Branson’s hyped Virgin Galactic and a little known Spanish company zero2infinity.
Virgin has been pledging to start commercial operations ‘in the next two years’ since 2009, at which point the company was already one year behind its original schedule. In the latest publicity stunt at the UK Farnborough airshow in June 2013, Branson claimed he and his family would blast off aboard Virgin’s Space Ship Two on a pioneering two-hour space journey on 25 December. The date of the maiden flight has later been revised to February 2014 and doubts have already been cast on the probability of achieving this target.
Building on the legacy of Space Ship One that famously won the 2004 Ansari X Prize after reaching the altitude of 100 km in two consecutive flights, Virgin Galactic’s journey toward the actual commercialisation of space travel has been much bumpier. Until today, the Space Ship Two has performed two test flights, firing its hybrid nitrous oxide-rubber rocket engines and reaching a maximum altitude of about 17 kilometres – less than a fifth of the advertised 100 kilometres.
In the meantime, zero2infinity, founded in 2009 by a Spanish entrepreneur Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales, has opted for a different strategy. Offering a longer near-space ride, more comfort and a little bit of free-fall induced weightlessness, Zero2Infinity plans to use helium-filled balloons to carry a pressurised capsule for four passengers and two pilots to the stratosphere. The company has already performed nine unmanned flights reaching the desired altitude of 30 kilometres and would like to carry out manned test flights in 2014. Though being aware that space balloons will never fly as high as space-planes, the company’s founder believes space balloons, or ‘bloons’, as zero2infinity calls them, have many advantages.
Space for all (who can afford it)
“For most of the customers, the actual number, the exact altitude, doesn’t really matter that much,” says Urdiales, obviously used to his position of an overlooked underdog accustomed to the constant scorning of rocket-geeks. “All the customers want is to see something different than what they can see from an aircraft – that means black sky, blue Earth and the curvature of the Earth,” he says, maintaining that 30 kilometres is high enough to provide the famous overview effect experienced by astronauts in orbit.
In fact, he believes there are many reasons why the commercial potential of balloons could eventually prove better than that of rocket-powered planes. Unlike the space-planes, space balloons can carry people who are in not-so perfect health, those with hip implants, pacemakers or high blood pressure – in short, all those excluded from Virgin Galactic flights due to extreme G loads involved in the take-off and atmospheric re-entry of the rocket-plane. “You have to realise that the potential clients, those people who have enough money, are usually not 25 anymore,” says Urdiales.
Safety lessons from the Russians
And let’s not forget about safety. With no engines powering the 'bloon', there is nothing to blow up. In fact, a test of a propellant system intended for use on Virgin Galactic’s Space Ship Two resulted in a tragic explosion in the facilities of Virgin’s partner company Scale Composites at a Mojave Desert airport that killed three people in 2007. Details about the incident have never been fully disclosed but it most likely contributed to the project delays.
“In our case, the biggest risk is loss of cabin pressure, which is actually one of the smallest risks in the case of rocket-powered vehicles. Explosions of rockets during take-off or problems during re-entry and landing are about one hundred times more probable than the loss of cabin pressure,” says Urdiales.
The idea to use balloons for stratospheric trips is nothing new. In the 1920s and 1930s, Soviet, European and American researchers alike used balloons to explore the Earth’s stratosphere and conduct astronomic observations. Some of these ventures ended in disaster, such as the record-setting January 1934 Soviet mission Osoaviakhim-1.
After a seven-hour flight, which reached the record-breaking altitude of 22,000 metres, the hydrogen-filled balloon, carrying three scientists, started its descent. At about 12,000 metres, the vehicle suddenly lost buoyancy and plunged into an uncontrolled fall, killing the crew on impact.
The investigation concluded the balloon stayed at record altitudes too long, exceeding maximum design limits. Overheated by sunlight, the balloon lost too much lifting gas in the upper atmosphere and after cooling down during the descent simply shrunk too much to hold in the air.
However, lessons have been learned and the technology has advanced. Explaining how he plans to guarantee the safe return of his customers, Urdiales says: “We have two parachutes as a backup, we don’t descend using the balloon. In fact, we get rid of the balloon before we start the descent, which is why the whole thing is so expensive – we do recover the balloon but we don’t use it again. It costs us €100,000 to get a new balloon each time.”
Comfort over thrill
So how does it work? The balloon needs 45 minutes to climb to the final altitude of 36 km, where it stays for up to two hours cruising above the Earth’s surface. Whereas space-plane passengers will either sit without movement pinned back into their seats by extreme G forces, deafened by the roar of the rocket engine, or try not to collide with each other during those few minutes of weightless free floating, 'bloon' flyers are invited to do pretty much anything they like – drink champagne, meditate or simply enjoy the stunning space views and take pictures.
When the descent starts, the gas from the balloon is vented out and the balloon thrown away. Based on the customers’ requirements, simulation of microgravity or even lunar or Martian gravity may follow during a regulated free fall before the parachute's deployment. After another 30 minutes, the capsule, guided by GPS, lands with 50-metre accuracy on a pre-defined spot with the impact softened by eight airbags.
Zero2infinity sells tickets for $143,000, which is $107,000 less than the price of a Virgin Galactic flight. The company says it already has a waiting list of customers who have paid early deposits of $13,000 and has secured investments from the world’s second biggest balloon manufacturer, Spain’s third largest bank and several angel investors.
While most of the current private space race has been centred in the USA, zero2infinity wants to fly its 'bloons' from Spain. “Spain has great conditions for flying and flight testing. It has great weather – clear sky, no wind, a lot of land with very low population density,” Urdiales points out. “It’s also very accessible. Many wealthy people already come to Spain for various reasons – they come for holidays, to party, to see a football match, they come to hunt – so it would be very suitable for them to fit a space balloon trip into their itinerary.”
The ultimate victor in the space tourism race is as-yet undecided - the crown is there for the taking. Recently, Virgin Galactic’s competitor XCOR stole some of the limelight when partnering with cosmetics giant Unilever to launch a competition offering free sub-orbital flights on its space planes. However, XCOR’s actual start of operations is as uncertain as Virgin Galactic’s and the test flights promised to take place in 2013 are yet to happen. Perhaps some of the less patient customers-in-waiting may eventually decide to trade the thrill of an uncertain space-plane flight for the comfort and earlier launch date of a space 'bloon' – in spite of “only” reaching an altitude of 30,000 kilometres.
You can watch two videos below. The first one shows zero2infinity's Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales discussing his concept with Sir Richard Branson, the second was taken during a space balloon test flight.