Helium Balloons for Near-Space Tourism
Imagine floating 22 miles (36 km) above the Earth in a cabin suspended under an enormous helium balloon. You eat a gourmet meal and sip wine as the planet drifts by far below. The curvature of the Earth stretches out to the horizon, providing a spectacular backdrop for your three-hour trip.
That's exactly the service that zero2infinity is planning to provide to customers aboard its Bloon vehicle. The Spanish company plans to use large helium balloons to send up to four passengers on near-space tourism rides into the stratosphere.
Artist's conception of zero2infinity's Bloon vehicle desingned for near-space tourism
Zero2infinity's vehicle combines an extremely large helium balloon with a pressurized capsule, which will allow passengers to reach heights that are inaccessible to normal hot air balloons. Passengers won't be in space itself, but the view will be very similar to that experienced on suborbital flights.
The company was founded by Jose Mariano Lopez-Urdiales, who has degrees from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in Spain and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been involved in many aerospace projects, including building and flying microgravity payloads for the European Space Agency.
Lopez-Urdiales developed the idea of using helium balloons for tourism while a student at the International Space University's Summer Session in Valparaiso, Chile, in 2000. He elaborated on the concept further in an article made public during the 53rd International Aeronautics Congress at Houston, Texas, and in a $50,000 business plan competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2002.
Lopez-Urdiales formed zero2infinity in Barcelona, Spain, in 2009. He has since spent several years raising money and developing the technology required to make Bloon a reality.
For the passenger vehicle, the company will use a capsule built by famed aviator and aircraft designer Dick Rutan. In 1986, Rutan and Jeana Yeager became the first pilots to fly non-stop around the world without refueling in the Voyager aircraft.
Rutan planned to repeat that feat in a balloon. In 1998, he and co-pilot Dave Melton failed only hours into the flight after the balloon ruptured. The crew bailed out, but the vehicle was lost.
Rutan vowed to try again and built a new gondola called World Quest. However, he abandoned the effort after a rival team made the first non-stop, round-the-world trip in a balloon in March 1999. The capsule sat in Rutan's hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California until zero2infinity purchased it in 2012.
Lopez-Urdiales said the company plans to modify the gondola for use with Bloon. He hopes the first passenger flights will take place in 2013.