Space tourism doesn’t have to be rocket science

“T minus 10 seconds.”

Imagine you’re a space tourist, preparing for lift-off. Yet rather than a deafening roar, followed by shaking and shuddering as the rocket engine fires up, you experience a serene stillness as the countdown continues.

“5, 4, 3, 2, 1…” And you’re away. You are pressed into your seat as the spacecraft ascends into the sky. But it’s a gentle push, not a blood-draining, face-distorting squeeze. And apart from the voices of the pilots beside you and the rush of air around the capsule, there is only silence. Outside, the darkening sky outlines the steadily growing curvature of the Earth. Before long, the sky is completely black, while the planet below has turned blue. You have reached the edge of space, and there’s not a rocket in sight.

Several companies hope to make their fortune by opening up space travel to people with the right stuff – money, in this case. Almost all the firms plan to do so using rockets, though, and rockets are dangerous. Of the 500-odd people launched into space so far, 18 have died. For some people, the risk is surely part of the attraction. But what if you wanted the serene experience of looking at the blue marble without the risk of meeting a sticky end? José Mariano López-Urdiales thinks he has the answer: space ballooning.

The company he founded, Zero2Infinity, based in Barcelona, Spain, hopes to start taking people up to near-space as early as 2013. Balloons cannot go as high as rockets, but in theory at least they should be far safer, since passengers won’t be sitting on tonnes of explosives. Their environmental impact is also far lower than that of smoke-belching rockets.

López-Urdiales was inspired by his father, an atmospheric physicist who was involved in sending probes to Titan and Mars. “I’ve always seen him working, seen all the excitement of years of work going into a flight. That’s what got me excited about space in general,” he says. Then, in 2000, his father told him about how the Huygens probe that explored Titan was tested by dropping a prototype from a balloon around 40 kilometres up. “After our conversation, I thought if there’s going to be space tourism, then let’s try this way,” he says.

There is no doubt that it is possible, because it has been done many times before. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than a dozen crewed balloons journeyed to near-space. In 1957, for instance, Joe Kittinger of the US air force ascended to a height of 29 kilometres in a capsule attached to a helium balloon. He enjoyed the ride so much that when ordered to descend, he replied: “Come and get me.”

Zero2Infinity hopes to spread that joy to the civilian population. The company has carried out several test flights of uncrewed balloons, and earlier this year got the funding needed to carry out its first flight carrying people.

The plan is to use a massive helium “bloon”, as the company likes to call it, to carry a pressurised capsule with space for two pilots and two passengers up to 34 kilometres above the Earth. You can book now – but at €110,000 per ticket, you’ll need a little spare cash.

Will all that money really get you into space? According to one widely accepted definition, space begins 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, so most space tourism groups, such as Virgin Galactic, aim to take their passengers that far up.

That is more than twice the height a balloon can reach, and Zero2Infinity’s website uses the term “near-space” rather than “space”. López-Urdiales, however, points out that there is no clear physical boundary. At 34 kilometres, you are above more than 99 per cent of the atmosphere, he told attendees last October at a sustainability symposium in the Maldives. And even 400 kilometres up, at the height of the International Space Station, there is still a very thin atmosphere.

The balloon’s altitude is not the only issue. Passengers will also miss out on the thrill of high g-forces and subsequent weightlessness. But is the point of space travel to get funfair thrills that you could experience far more cheaply bytaking a plane ride on a weightlessness-producing “vomit comet”?

López-Urdiales thinks the defining experience of space travel isn’t the vomiting, weightlessness or g-forces. It’s the “overview effect” – the blissful sense of connection so many astronauts report after gazing down at our blue planet from above. According to anecdotal reports, this experience has lasting effects on those who experience it.

It remains to be seen whether bloon passengers will feel the same way, but they probably have a much better chance than rocketeers. Because 100 kilometres is not high enough to go into orbit, rocket-propelled craft such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo will immediately begin falling back to Earth, giving passengers only a few minutes to take in the views. Bloon passengers will have more time; after ascending for about an hour, the bloon will remain at its maximum height for double that time.

courtesy :

                   : new scientist

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                                 A Harihara sravan ( Mgit ece)