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Tickets to the stratosphere go on sale

Florida-based Space Perspective is opening its ticket window for 20-mile-high balloon flights that provide an astronaut’s-eye view of Earth.

The list price for a six-hour trip up into the stratosphere and back is $125,000. Flights are scheduled to begin as soon as late 2024.

Space Perspective’s co-CEOs, Taber MacCallum and Jane Poynter, unveiled the outlines of their plan for trips in a balloon-borne capsule called Spaceship Neptune a year ago. Since then, the concept has matured. Just last week, the company announced that it conducted a successful uncrewed test of its Neptune One prototype over Florida.

The trial balloon lifted off from the Space Coast Spaceport, located next to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, and rose to a height of 108,409 feet during a 6-hour, 39-minute flight. An onboard camera captured spectacular views of Earth below the black sky of space.

At the end of the test, Neptune One splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles off Florida’s west coast.

“This test flight of Neptune One kicks off our extensive test flight campaign, which will be extremely robust because we can perform tests without a pilot, making Spaceship Neptune an extremely safe way to go to space,” MacCallum said in a news release.

Spaceship Neptune is designed to rise to an altitude that’s less than a third as high as the 100-kilometer (62-mile) mark that serves as the internationally accepted boundary of space. And because the balloon’s 12-mph ascent is far more gentle than a rocket ship’s blast, passengers won’t feel weightless at any time during the trip. But Space Perspective is betting that the opportunity to get a space-like view of Earth’s vistas for hours rather than mere minutes will attract adventurers.

The balloon capsule will be built to accommodate a pilot and up to eight passengers in comfort, with a bar, a bathroom and Wi-Fi on board. A co-pilot and support team will monitor operations from the ground. When it’s time to come down, the balloon and its capsule would sink to an ocean splashdown, and a recovery ship would pick up the passengers as well as the hardware and return them all to shore.

Customers can make reservations via Space Perspective’s website with a $1,000-per-person refundable deposit. The first 25 flights will be set aside for “Legacy Explorers” who’ll presumably pay more.

In addition to the tourist trade, the Neptune flights may appeal to researchers specializing in atmospheric science or space science.

The $125,000 ticket price is less than the hundreds of thousands of dollars (or maybe even millions) that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will be charging for suborbital flights to the edge of space, and far less than the tens of millions of dollars required for booking an orbital trip in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Space Perspective is only the latest far-out venture for MacCallum and Poynter. They participated in the Biosphere 2 closed-environment experiments in Arizona in the early 1990s, and went on to found Paragon Space Development Corp. in 1993. They first floated the idea of sending balloons on space-like trips to the stratosphere with a startup called World View Enterprises, founded in 2012. (At that time, the projected ticket price was $75,000.)

Two years later, Paragon and World View played key roles in Google executive Alan Eustace’s record-setting stratospheric parachute jump. Eustace is a founding board member of Space Perspective.

Last December, Space Perspective announced that it closed a $7 million seed financing round for the development and early flights of Spaceship Neptune. Prime Movers Lab and Base Ventures served as lead investors for that round — and motivational speaker Tony Robbins numbers among the venture’s other investors.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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