tip off
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Now its Space balloons versus Virgin rocket rides

It sounds just like being at the bar at the back of an Emirates A380, except there will be fewer people, much bigger windows, and when you peer out of them you’ll probably be in the mood to pour yourself more than a few stiff drinks.

World View supplied image of lifting balloon and landing parachute

A different space race, for thrill rides on sub orbital trips to the zone where true space begins, has taken a new turn with the launch of plans for less costly, more ‘leisurely’  extreme high altitude balloon rides, complete with a stand up bar.

It sounds just like being at the bar at the back of an Emirates A380, except there will be fewer people, much bigger windows, and when you peer out of them you’ll probably be in the mood to pour yourself more than a few stiff drinks.

The plan, for $US 95,000 four hour balloon rides to a height of 30 kilometres, compared to at least $US 250,000 for a 40 minute rocket ride to 110 kilometres including five minutes of zero G on Virgin Galactic, has attracted much media for its proponents, World View Enterprises Inc of Tuscon, Arizona.

One of the best reports is in the New York Times, which didn’t stop at the press release, and adds useful context, and is thoughtfully reproduced in full without a paywall here in the Fairfax media.

Problem No 1. The handout photo reproduced at the top of the page purports to show the landing parachute which will guide the gondola complete with bar, safely and gently back to earth.

Which that type of rectangular ram-air parachute most certainly won’t if dropped from 30 kilometres ( or around 100,000 feet for imperialists who like big numbers).

Such elliptical parachute designs are insufficiently robust or stable for retarding the high velocities of a falling object which could approach or exceed mach 1 or the speed of sound as it plunges into the denser lower levels of the atmosphere where the air is conducive to a relaxed if not inebriated return to mother earth.

For that sort of happy ending you need to insert into the return process a ribbon or ring type parachute design such as those used to slow incoming hydrogen bombs before they incinerate their targets.

Conclusion: The World View handout image is more aspirational than accurate.

But this isn’t to knock its proposal. It sounds and looks, parachute notwithstanding, like a very relaxing and enjoyable way to experience and savour altitudes too high to sustain conventional flight as we know it.

It might even sell you, as in ‘hey you with a bag load of money’, on the notion of then going for the big one, the Virgin rocket ride, which goes more than three times higher to the edge of truly, really almost space and brings you back to a glider landing with wings similar to that which used to be done by the Space Shuttle without the pyrotechnics that were involved when dropping back from orbital velocities.

All of these things aside, there remains a great deal of work to be done by Virgin Galactic, and Word View, and some other interesting imitators, to perfect their rockets and balloons to the stringent new standards that the FAA is insisting upon before such ventures launch with their first paying customers.

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  • 1
    Dan Dair
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    The thing is though,
    unless you know differently,?
    The balloon rides will always be pleasure flights
    Whereas;
    Although Virgin Galactic is essentially intended right now as a rich-mans-toy (as in the passengers, not as in Richard Branson), it is technology which MAY pave the way for a viable future commercial transport operation.
    Only time
    And
    LOTS of development money will tell……

  • 2
    Ben Sandilands
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    In fact Virgin Galactic is applying its current technology to future tendering for unmanned micro satellite launch contracts.

    Reports say that it can adapt the WhiteKnight lifter vehicle, which takes its SpaceShip Two design to a drop off and ignite altitude of around 50,000 feet, to satellite launches at a much lower rate per kg than conventional single use rockets for lower orbits with a payload of up to about 225 kgs.

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