Let’s just assume, for a moment, that you are both incredibly rich and totally bonkers.
So there you are, planning a trip to space.
With whom would you feel more confident traveling there—and back—with? A trained aerospace engineer whose father was an astrophysicist and who has spent several years working at the European Space agency, or Richard Branson?
I know who my money would be on. In the great race to put a tourist in space, it is just possible that the quietly confident Spaniard José Mariano López-Urdiales, whose project Bloon plans to serenely float tourists 36km above the earth in pressurized capsules slung beneath giant gas balloons (no, you won’t be hanging out of a gondola), may quietly trump the bigger and noisier rocket-driven efforts of Virgin Galactic.
The tape is telling: Urdiales, who graduated in aerospace engineering from MIT, has already flown a prototype (without people) to 32km above the earth, only 4KM short of his target height, while Virgin Galactic, which plans to go to an altitude of 110km, has yet to get a rocket higher than 22km from the earth’s crust.
Purists will of course argue that 36km above the earth is not actually “in space” and it is true that at that altitude you are more earthly than heavenly body. You are, for example, still subject to earthly gravity, and not in orbit.
But the view from a balloon at 36km will not be so very different from the view you get from a spaceship, claims Urdiales. “At about 30km, the sky becomes as black as it can be, that is the point at which you see the planet, blue below you, and the curvature of the earth. Going higher just reduces the time you have to enjoy that view. Virgin are offering 4 to 5 minutes of black sky, but 4 to 5 minutes is not enough. We are going to be giving people a couple of hours up there.”
The astonishing pictures taken from an altitude of 39km in 2012 by the Red Bull Stratos project (Felix Baumgartner skydived from a balloon which had reached those dizzy heights) prove his point adequately.
Urdiales also points out another factor—during re-entry to the atmosphere, passengers on Virgin Galactic will be experiencing 6Gs of pressure.
What does 6Gs feel like? Let this writer: explain: “Quickly I felt lightheaded, and then my vision started tunneling, the edges blurring into black. To keep blood in my head and prevent myself from blacking out, I had to squeeze my arm and leg muscles as tight as I could, blocking too much blood from pooling there and forcing it to stay in my brain… I was proud of myself for not blacking out or throwing up…”
“It’s scary to ride a rocket,” says Urdiales, “I think our plan is much more realistic. I think it’s the best way—more comfortable, more silent, more environmentally benign. The chances of success are much higher. Trying to do it in a reusable rocket, landing on a runway, that system has a very bad track record. We have spent tens of billions of dollars doing that, and it did not really work.”
Branson said last week that he will be in space by next spring, but this has been met with a certain amount of eye-rolling by Branson-watchers who fear his project will never get off the planet.
Branson originally said in 2004 that passengers would be able to fly to space by 2007. Since then, he has declared several times that take off is imminent. Wags have drawn comparisons to Pan American Airways 1968 announcement of plans for commercial flights to the moon. You could put your name down on a “First Moon Flights” waiting list.
By the time the airline declared itself bankrupt in 1991, more than 90,000 people, including Ronald Reagan, were still waiting.
Talking to the Daily Beast from his home in Barcelona, ahead of an appearance at the Houston SXSW Eco Conference on Wednesday where he will be speaking on the topic of “Space: Earth’s new ally against climate change”, Lopez-Urdiales said he was confident that a human test flight—ie a balloon transporting himself and a few eggheads from his organistaion—would reach 36KM next year.
He was reluctant to say when they would start accepting paying tourists, as getting the relevant licenses to fly people to the edge of space is expected to be somewhat tricky.
While far from technically easy, the challenge that Lopez-Urdiales has set himself is a considerably more realistic aspiration than Branson’s, as near-space ballooning has been going on for decades now. In 1960, Long before Baumgartner plunged to earth, Joseph William Kittinger II (born July 27, 1928) a Colonel in the United States Air Force, skydived to earth from a balloon 31km high, making him the first human to observe the curvature of the Earth.
He memorably described the experience thus, “The spectacle was breathtaking. I could see a thunderhead boiling up above Flagstaff, Arizona, 350 miles to the west. I could make out Guadalupe Pass in Texas to the east. It was almost like a painting. I can’t really describe the feeling I had hanging there in that tiny gondola and seeing this magnificent planet set against the utter backdrop of outer space. I suddenly had a powerful and unfamiliar sense of my own remoteness from everything I cherished in life.”
Urdiales is professionally courteous, but cannot withhold his criticism of some aspects of the Virgin operation, “Many people think they made a fundamental mistake in the engine choice, not using natural gas. A lot of people have tried to help them—including me, I have tried to introduce people to them—but they don’t want to listen. Everyone wants them to succeed, because we want to see a return for investors to make the industry viable, but it’s been ten years and $380m so far.
“Virgin Galactic seems to be run with a marketing mindset. They are not so strong on the engineering.”
Branson’s claims that 800 tickets have already been sold bears this out amply.
Of course, the fact that balloons have been flying assorted lunatics to the edge of space for decades doesn’t mean that flying bored billionaires there will be an easy task. Most demanding is the construction of the capsule in which the $150,000-a-time guests will travel, followed by obtaining the necessary government licenses.
Urdiales is critical of many aspects of Virgin Galactic, not least the appalling environmental implications of burning vast amounts of rocket fuel per trip as opposed to floating upwards powered by nothing more than the weightlessness of Helium.
“Freud would have something to say about the desire to go to space in a rocket,” he says. “It’s a very alpha male thing. But, you know, half of the population are women, and traditionally they are less interested in toys and more interested in experiences. It’s much more difficult to sell a flight to space to a woman than a man. Of all the space tourists to have gone so far, there is one woman and seven men. A balloon is much more romantic. I think couples will be going. Part of the beauty of an experience like this is seeing the other person react to it, sharing it. We all know that going to the movies alone is not the same thing as going with a friend.
“And 6Gs on re-entry excludes a lot of people.”
So is Branson nuts? “No. He’s not crazy. He’s very smart, and he has done the whole industry a great favour,” says Jose, with conviction, and then adds a meaningful tribute to his greatest rival. “He made the concept of space tourism popular. The truth is, we would never have started without him.”