Space tourism company Space Perspective successfully conducted the first flight test of its prototype stratospheric passenger balloon, reaching an altitude of 108,409 feet on Friday, June 18, the company announced in a press statement.
The balloon prototype, called Neptune One, lifted off at 5:23 a.m. EDT from the Space Coast Regional Airport near Kennedy Space Center, Florida, before splashing down 6 hours and 39 minutes later in the Gulf of Mexico.
The first test kicks off an extensive test campaign to assess Neptune One's feasibility as a passenger balloon for space tourists.
"This test flight of Neptune One kicks off our extensive test flight campaign, which will be extremely robust because we can perform tests without a pilot, making Spaceship Neptune an extremely safe way to go to space," co-CEO and founder Taber MacCallum said in the press release.
All going well, the balloon will eventually be flown by a pilot and carry eight passengers for six hours, reaching an altitude of 100,000 feet. Space Perspective is aiming for its first crewed flight in 2023 and first commercial flight in 2024.
The company's stratospheric balloon won't quite reach space — which starts at the Kármán line at 330,000 feet — though it aims to give humans a high enough perspective that they could still experience the overview effect.
Making spaceflight 'more accessible to all'
The space tourism race is heating up with Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos racing to be the first private space enterprise founders to go to space on their own company's spacecraft in July.
However, with tickets for the likes of Virgin Galactic expected to be in the $250,000 range, other firms are looking to provide cheaper alternatives.
Space Perspective joins the likes of Barcelona-based Zero 2 Infinity in testing stratospheric balloons as a cheaper and safer method of travel for space tourists. Zero 2 Infinity has stated that a ride on its 'Bloon' balloon will cost approximately $130,000. Space Perspective aims to go a little cheaper, charging approximately $125,000 for a passenger ticket.
Aside from providing a cheaper — though still pricey — alternative, Space Perspective and Zero 2 Infinity also emphasize that their method is safer as it doesn't involve flammable rocket fuel needed to launch other companies' rockets into orbit.
Founded in 2019, Space Perspective "was created to make spaceflight more accessible to all, and to provide the thrilling opportunity to see Earth as a planet in space. Spaceship Neptune was developed from the onset for maximum safety, accessibility, near-zero emissions, and routine operations around the world," the company explained in its release.
During the first flight test, Space Perspective also carried a payload of science experiments into space, including an ozone sensor from the University of Northern Florida, showing that Neptune One can double up as a valuable research platform at the same time as taking tourists to the edge of space.