Featured image credit: Space Perspective
It’s good that space is a big place; everyone’s trying to get a piece of it and the astronomical market figures predicted for the space tourism market. Today, another company joined the race to space (tourism) with the announcement of plans to send citizens. Space Perspective has formally announced plans to take paying customers to space aboard their spaceship Neptune, lifted to the edge of space by high altitude balloon system, with test flights set to begin in early 2021.
If the idea sounds familiar, that’s because founders Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum have done something similar before. That company, World View Enterprises, was originally positioned as a space tourism company but has since pivoted to research and payloads rather than passengers.
Poynter and MacCallum have worked together on several projects, dating back to Biosphere 2, in which they spent over two years inside a self-sufficient artificial ecosystem in the desert outside Tucson, Arizona. “When we were in Biosphere 2, one of the seminal experiences was being part of our biosphere,” Poynter said. “The experience of oneness with our world is very similar to the experience astronauts have of space.”
This new venture, as the name suggests, is all about allowing people to experience the “Overview Effect,” a well-documented psychological shift that happens for individuals – up to this point, astronauts – when they see the earth from the perspective of space. “Our goal is to make that space perspective available to as many people as possible,” says MacCallum.
The Overview Effect has been reported by many astronauts, and was first coined in Frank White’s 1987 book of the same name. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins famously described his shift in perspective, saying “The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. … I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”
“When we take all of the people want to take to the edge of space, we want them to be really able to experience what astronauts talk about – seeing the earth from space,” underscores Poyter. To that end, Space Perspective enlisted the support of London-based design firm Priestman Goode to create a capsule that would allow for the maximum unobstructed view possible. The spaceship, named Neptune, is named for both the planet and the Ancient Greek god of water; Poynter underscores that this is a poignant overlap since our pale blue dot is one of the few places we know of liquid water in the universe – and that water is critical for almost all life on earth.
So what will the experience aboard Neptune be like? From start to finish, Poynter and MacCallum want the experience to centered around accessibility. Unlike other space tourism companies such as Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin that prepare passengers with training on the time frame of several hours to several days, Space Perspective will require limited training for customers beyond entry and exit procedures, and what to do in an emergency.
The flight itself will last about six hours, including two hours of ascent, two hours of floating, and two hours of descent. During the flight, Neptune will reach an altitude around 100,000 feet; this is lower than theKármán line, the generally accepted ‘edge of space’ at roughly 100 kilometers above earth.
On a Space Perspective flight, there will be only eight passengers on each flight, plus a pilot crew member; a co-pilot on earth can help control the balloon and capsule in the event the pilot is helping passengers enjoy the experience. Poynter also noted that there will be communications systems to allow passengers to “connect with friends on the ground” during a flight.
Initially, Space Perspective plans to launch from Kennedy Space Center and Cecil Spaceport, both in Florida. Longer term plans include private launch facilities in Alaska, Hawaii, and internationally. Test flights will all occur in Florida, as likely will manufacturing.
In addition to people, Space Perspective plans to fly research payloads. Some fields of research include those surrounding climate change, atmospheric science, solar physics, and astrobiology. “We’ll be flying experiments on test flights, it’s a core part of our business,” Poynter said. “Our goal will be taking people and research payloads to the edge of space.
Space Perspective has also announced a partnership with another new space venture, Space For Humanity, to try and improve the accessibility of space for non-traditional and non-wealthy passengers. Space For Humanity plans to send groups of citizens to space through an application process and sponsorships to reduce the cost of space flight.
Which brings up the sticky topic for all space tourism companies: price. Getting to space requires incredible up-front capital and investment in failproof hardware. This has historically lead to high prices and sticker shock for those of us who want to believe that these companies will help make space more accessible for everyone. While they have yet to commit to a final price, Poynter suggested the price will be somewhere in the range of $125,000 per person; she also underscored the goal that price will come down over time due to the reusability of the capsule and other components (the balloons are one-time-use).
“Everybody should be able to see the earth from space,” Poynter concludes. Space Perspective encourages prospective customers to sign up on their website – no deposit needed – to stay up-to-date on news and those inevitable timeline adjustments on the company’s journey to space.