Stock Groups

Firms plan to use balloons to go to space in 2024


Nearly half the Americans dream of traveling to outer space.

But that means the other half doesn’t, according to a 2021 surveyValuePenguin (one of LendingTree’s financial search websites) Space travel is considered too risky by nearly 40% of respondents, with others concerned about the environmental impacts and cost.

According to companies, there will soon be an option to address those concerns. via high-altitude balloons.

In reality, the balloons rise less than half the distance to the technical definition of space, but that’s still nearly three times higher than most commercial flights travel — and high enough to see the Earth’s curvature.

Jane Poynter (CEO of at) said that balloons don’t sound like a rocket launch. Space PerspectiveThe company hopes to transport passengers into the stratosphere by 2024.

According to her, there is no need for training and the absence of “high Gs” face-contorting. Also, trips do not emit any carbon emissions.

Florida-based Poynter stated that the hydrogen-powered six-hour flights will be powered by hydrogen. The journeys are expected to last for approximately six hours.  

Hydrogen has been called the “The Future of Energy”fuel of the future” — a potential game-changing energy source that could alter the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

CNBC Travel discovered that there was no consensus regarding safety after having conversations with field personnel.

What’s new?

Stratospheric balloons aren’t new — they’ve been used for scientific and weather research since the early 20th century.

Transporting paying passengers is possible, however. 

Former U.S. Air Force pilot Joseph Kittinger (left) and Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner (right) — two of a small group of people who have gone to the stratosphere via balloon — on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on June 8, 2012.

Getty Images| NBCUniversal | Getty Images

Poynter is part of the team which helped former Google executives. Alan Eustace break the world freefall recordWhen he leapt from a stratospheric sphere balloon, he reached 26 miles above Earth.

While Eustace hung under a balloon wearing a spacesuit, Space Perspective’s passengers will travel via a pressurized capsuleShe said that the capsule can hold eight passengers and one pilot. It is supported by a parachute system, which she stated has been tested thousands of times.

“In all of the conversations that we have with people, safety is the first thing that comes up,” Poynter said during a video call from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. “This is truly the safe way of going to space.”

A ‘PR Problem’ that has been around for 85 years

A hydrogen-filled balloon burst at Tucson’s facilities of World View Enterprises, a stratospheric balloon firm, in December 2017.

At the time, Poynter was World View’s CEO. World View was co-founded by Poynter and Taber MacCallum, her husband and business partner. The couple sold the business in 2012 and co-founded Worldview. In 2019, they formed Space Perspective.

Taber MacCallum, Space Perspective’s Co-CEO, and Jane Poynter are also co-CEOs. Together with six other people, they spent two years in Biosphere 2, a closed terrarium, during the 1990s.

Source: Space Perspective

A report by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, obtained by CNBC under the Freedom of Information Act, stated that an on-site manager suspected “static electricity” ignited the hydrogen. According to the reportIt was a ground test that occurred while the balloon was being put inflated. The incident did not lead to any injuries.

An electrostatic discharge, i.e. A spark of static electricity is an electrostatic discharge. ignited flammable hydrogen gas is widely believed to have caused the Hindenburg airship disasterIn 1937.

Peter Washabaugh from the University of Michigan is an associate professor of aeronautical engineering.

“The outer covering of the vehicle was flammable. It is not clear what caught fire first — the covering or the hydrogen,” he said. “The craft was being operated aggressively during a storm… I would say it was operational negligence.”

Washabaugh claimed that hydrogen is safer thanks to technological developments.   

“Lots has changed in the last 100 years,” he said, noting that newer balloon materials “are specifically better at containing hydrogen.”

This is a rendering of the inside space of Space Perspective’s capsule “Neptune”.

Source: Space Perspective

Robert Knotts, a former engineering officer with the U.K.’s Royal Air Force and current council member of England’s Airship Association, agreed.

He co-authored an article in the Royal Aeronautical Society, a professional body for the aerospace community, which stated: “Modern materials and sensors could make a hydrogen airship as safe as any helium airship.”

Mention hydrogen with either airships or balloons and “everybody’s mind goes back to the Hindenburg — that’s the picture they have,” he said, calling the incident a “major PR problem” for the gas.

Meanwhile, hydrogen is now used to power electric cars, while airliners (“God knows how many gallons of fuel are on board”) carry inherent fire risks too, he said.

Helium vs. hydrogen debate

Ryan Hartman, World View’s CEO, told CNBC his company will use helium to power its planned 2024 launch of space tourism balloon flights.  

After noting that “our company is a very different company today,” he said: “Our decision … is purely from a perspective of wanting to do something that is as safe as possible for passengers.”

He called the use of hydrogen to carry passengers to the stratosphere “an unnecessary risk.”

Hartman said hydrogen is used to launch balloons when “the risk is low,” which makes sense, he said, because it’s cheaper and is a very high-quality lift gas.

An illustration of World View’s space capsules. They are due to be launched in 2024 from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef near the United States.

Source: World View

In 2018, Poynter — World View’s CEO at the time — told CNBC that World View doesn’t use hydrogenIts balloon systems.

But her new company, Space Perspective, is now choosing to use it to join the rapidly growing hydrogen economyShe said,

“Helium is in very scarce supply and is needed by hospitals for tests for the very ill as well as to launch communication satellites and conduct important research,” she said. “With helium shortages already occurring, it is unsustainable to use helium for space tourism flights at scale.”

She added that hydrogen has also been shown to be extremely safe when used as a lift-gas.

Are you ready for hydrogen?

Space Perspective’s decision is part of a larger movement to return to hydrogenJared Leidich is the chief technology officer of World View’s stratospheric-balot aerial imagery firm. Urban Sky.

“Hydrogen can absolutely be a safe gas,” he said, noting that there is “a ton” of precedent for using it in other regions of the world.

As to whether he would ride a balloon into his stratosphere: “Absolutely,” said Leidich. Are you using hydrogen or helium It wouldn’t matter, he said, noting that hydrogen can make aspects of the ride safer “because it’s a more efficient lift gas, the whole system can end up being smaller, which has some cascading benefits.”

He said he’s already booked a seat — and paid a $1,000 refundable deposit — for a Space Perspective flight.

Knotts also said that the choice of gas “wouldn’t bother me, quite frankly.”   

Some weren’t so certain.

Kim Strong, an atmospheric physicist and chair of the University of Toronto’s Department of Physics, told CNBC she’d “feel safer with a helium-filled balloon.”

But University of Michigan’s Washabaugh said he’s on the fence about riding in a stratospheric balloon.

“It would not matter if it was H2 or He,” he said in an email. “I’m just more fond of a powered vehicle.”

A complex transition

Persistent talk of an impending helium shortage has caused “almost all” balloon companies Leidich works with to develop systems that are compatible with hydrogen and helium, he said.

Brooklyn-based company that creates imagery from stratospheric ballasts Near Space Labs currently uses helium, but CEO Rema Matevosyan said it’s exploring using hydrogen in the future.   

“The advantages of hydrogen are there. All the issues with hydrogen are there as well, and everybody knows it,” she said. “It’s going to be a very complex transition … it’s going to take research … the demand for this will also drive some of the research.”

EOS-X SpaceMadrid’s based company for stratospheric balloons, called, plans to switch to space tourism from Europe and Asia.

“The first flight test this next quarter will be powered by helium,” said founder and chairman Kemel Kharbachi. But “our engineers and the development and innovation team are working with hydrogen so that we can be the first before 2024 to have this technology.” 

Risk — or even the perception of risk — will be a significant hurdle.

Lars Kalnajs

University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

Other people are still sticking to helium.

Jose Mariano Lopez Urdiales was the founder and CEO for the Barcelona-based company of stratospheric balloons. Zero 2 Infinity, told CNBC his company’s space tourism balloon rides will use helium “of course.”

“Our investors and clients want to avoid at all costs these kinds of fireworks,” he said via email, referencing a YouTube video showing the World View ground test balloon explosion.

However, he did not rule out hydrogen being used in the future. His company might, after “a few thousands successful hydrogen flight”, then gradually introduce hydrogen to high-altitude crewed flights in a controlled manner.

Lars Kalnajs, a research scientist at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, agreed, saying hydrogen use could be an uphill battle since stratospheric tourism is a new and unproven venture.

“Risk — or even the perception of risk — will be a significant hurdle,” he said, “at least until the safety of the overall system is very well proven.”

Not exactly ‘space’

While Hartman and Poynter may disagree about which lifting gas to use, they both said stratospheric balloon rides are far safer than rocket-based space travel — and much cheaper.

Tickets on World View’s capsule cost $50,000 per seat, while Space Perspective is currently reserving seats for $125,000. Both airlines stated that they expect all U.S.-based flights to be fully booked by 2024.

However, unlike Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX, the stratospheric flights don’t reach space. Most balloons will travel 30 to 40 kilometers (about 19 to 25 miles) high, which falls short of the internationally recognized boundary for space — the so-called “Karman Line” — set at 100 kilometers above sea level.

Still, it’s high enough to see to see the “iconic thin blue line” of Earth’s atmosphere, said Poynter.

The World View capsule was on display at the SXSW festival, which took place in Austin (Texas) in March 2022.

Source: World View

John Spencer was the president and founder of The Spencer Company. Space Tourism SocietyAccording to us, the stratospheric balloons make up part of our “space community.”

“As far as I am concerned, they are providing a space experience with their balloon flights — and one many more people can experience than those who will be willing to get into a rocket ship,” he said.

Spencer stated that he was a friend to Poynter, and MacCallum’s partner., and is interested in taking a balloon flight with their company.

“But I would rather see them use helium,” he said.