Aeronautics

Want to Soar to the Stratosphere? Japan Joins the Balloon Tourism Race

A Japanese company has put out the call for passengers who’d be willing to pay more than $175,000 for an hours-long ride in a balloon-borne capsule that will rise as high as 15 miles (25 kilometers).

Technically, that’s nowhere near the boundary of outer space, but it’s high enough to get an astronaut’s-eye view of the curving Earth beneath a black sky.

“It’s safe, economical and gentle for people,” the CEO of a startup called Iwaya Giken, Keisuke Iwaya, told reporters in Tokyo. “The idea is to make space tourism for everyone.”

Other companies are planning similar stratospheric tourist ventures. But if Iwaya’s venture sticks to its announced timeline and begins flying customers around the end of this year, it would be the first to get to market.

Iwaya Giken has been working on the project since 2012, and has conducted low-altitude tests with smaller balloons. The flights for what’s known as the Open Universe Project will use a pressurized two-seat capsule that’s 5 feet (1.5 meters) wide with all-around windows.

The company opened up the online application process last month. The first five passengers are to be selected in October, with flights due to take off from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido in December or later, depending on weather.

Each passenger would make a gradual ascent alongside the balloon’s pilot for two hours, spend about an hour taking in the view, and then descend to an at-sea touchdown.

The “space excursion experience fee,” including tax, would be about 24 million yen, or roughly $176,500 at the current exchange rate. Iwaya Giken says it’s also willing to sell the “T-10 Earther” capsule for 100 million yen (about $735,000).

Although the price may seem steep in comparison with an airplane ride, it’s not as costly as a trip to orbit in SpaceX’s Falcon 9 capsule (roughly $55 million), or a suborbital space trip with Virgin Galactic ($450,000). For what it’s worth, the altitude of the outer-space boundary is defined as 50 miles according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and 100 kilometers (62 miles) according to the International Astronautical Federation.

Stratospheric balloons grabbed the headlines a month ago when Chinese spy balloons flew over the U.S., but private companies have been talking about offering high-altitude balloon tours for a decade.

Arizona-based World View Enterprises was arguably the first to recruit customers in 2013. For now, the company is focusing on the development of uncrewed “Stratollites,” but it still intends to fly passengers for $50,000, perhaps starting in the next year or two.

World View’s founders went on to create another company, Florida-based Space Perspective, which is selling tickets priced at $125,000 for stratospheric tours that are due to begin in 2025 or so.

Meanwhile, three Spanish companies — Zero 2 Infinity. EOS X Space and HALO Space — have been pursuing plans to send passengers on stratospheric balloon tours. Their timetables call for commercial flights to begin in 2024 or 2025.

Based on past history, it shouldn’t be surprising if all these timetables turn out to be — dare we say it? — a bit up in the air.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

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