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Ground Control To Traveller Tom

Space travel breaks the champagne barrier

Last year we finally sent “tourists” to space. First, it was Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, who managed to get to the boundary of space (80km up) and then Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin went even further, to the Kármán line (above 100 kilometres), where astronauts get their wings.

We are seeing the first steps of a new kind of space race. Many companies around the world have been investing humungous amounts of money in getting their spaceships ready to take travellers to new frontiers. Obviously ferrying tourists to space is not the only aim of these companies. Tourism is just a way for these companies to fund other more scientific goals, which will potentially help us to better understand and protect our planet.

The question is, why is space exploration so vital for humanity? I spoke to a woman who has been at the forefront of the subject for decades, Jane Poynter, co-founder and co-CEO of Space Perspective. “There is ground-breaking research that can be done out there,” she explains, “in the areas of climate change, atmospheric science, astronomy, solar physics… but what I think it’s really critical is that this area of the cosmos (the outer layer of the stratosphere) has not been studied very much and it actually has a fairly significant impact on our climate.”

Watch Earth from Spaceship Neptune:

Jane knows what she is talking about. She was part of the original crew for Biosphere 2 and led the design and operation of the project’s intensive plant growth systems that supplied the eight-person crew with food, water, and oxygen for the two-year mission. Building on the learnings from Biosphere 2, Jane founded Paragon, a company that pioneered life support systems and thermal control products for extreme environments. Paragon is a key part of NASA’s human exploration mission to the Moon and Mars. It was there when Jane says she and her partner Taber learnt everything about human spaceflight. In 2014, Google executive Alan Eustace chose Paragon to realize his dream of breaking the world’s free-fall record.

“If you can get on to an aeroplane, you can get onto Neptune.”

 – Jane Poynter,    co-founder, Space Perspective

With this experience under her belt, Jane launched World View Enterprises Inc. with Taber, to develop and commercialise satellite technology, a long duration stratospheric balloon, remote-sensing and communications platform that navigates the stratosphere. Spaceship Neptune, the spacecraft that Space Perspective will be used to take private citizens to space is the same balloon NASA has used a thousand times, so the flight will be incredibly gentle. “We can take people of all ages,” Jane explains. “Basically, if you can get on to an aeroplane, you can get onto Neptune.” This is possible because Neptune is not propelled by a rocket but by a high-performance SpaceBalloon™, so it slowly rises at 12 mph for two hours, stays at an altitude of 30km, the highest 1 per cent of the stratosphere (the same layer as the International Space Station, so pitch black outside) for another two and then descends. Spaceship Neptune will host eight passengers per trip. Inside, it is very spacious and beautifully designed, with windows all around for a 360° view. The experience will be further enhanced with gourmet food and an open bar for the duration of the flight.

Flights will be planned so guests will be able to gaze at the stars before watching the sun come out from behind our planet in a dawn that those who have the privilege to witness, will never forget. Space Perspective have filmed a sunrise in space in a recent test flight. “You see the stars and the Milky Way in all their glory and then, when the sun starts to shine in the atmosphere it forms an iridescence loop and rainbows appear across the sky, which appears as a thin wafer of blue encircling planet Earth.” She also tells me that they plan to find a location as north as possible to fly from so they can go up to see the Northern Lights which makes my skin turn green with envy. If that was not enough, there would be a telescope onboard and of course, wifi.

Neptune is propelled by a SpaceBalloon™, so it gently rises to space with no need for rockets.

The first location to fly from will be Florida, as early as 2024 and then from other locations. At present tickets cost $125,000. In case you are worried about the safety of Spaceship Neptune, think that this kind of balloon have been flown in the thousands by NASA and many others for decades and in any case, Jane confirms that “there are many redundant systems, back-ups, etc as well as a giant parachute between the capsule and the space balloon.” For further reassurance, she adds, “This type of parachute has been flown probably a thousand times and has never failed.”

Spaceship Neptune is spacious and beautifully designed, with windows all around for a 360° view.

The experience must be unique. There is a deep connection people feel with the planet after seeing Earth from above and the desire to do more to protect it as a result. “All astronauts feel this way. It is a kind of epiphany,” Jane states. On the other hand, the more popular a cause is, the easier is to get funding. “We are putting together a number of partnerships with really important foundations to provide our customer’s opportunities to get involved in humanitarian and environmental causes,” shares Jane.

Space exploration also opens the door to a whole new economy, with the obvious ones being space tourism and satellites. A business that has immediately followed the announcement of space tourism being a reality is that of “space tour operators” (think of Kuoni holidays or Abercrombie & Kent). Speaking with Geordie Mackay-Lewis, CEO of Stellar Frontiers, who realised that the game was about to change when Axiom launched the very first commercial space station, he shared, “I knew we could add value by becoming a space mission management company. We work with commercial spaceflight companies to arrange private citizen space exploration. We take care of everything, from booking the seats to the insurance, training…everything.”

Apparently, many of the privileged going into space are doing so for scientific or philanthropic reasons. This is where Geordie intends to focus and that’s why they’d be working with companies like SpaceX, which are creating large bespoke missions: “We want to send people to space stations to carry out scientific research and to pledge to do better things when they return to Earth.” He agrees with Jane on the fact that practically everyone who has been to space has come back and dedicated at least part of their lives to benefiting humanity and our planet. “Our partners are committed to facilitating vital research,” Geordie claims, “such as how to produce food in a zero-gravity environment, identifying illegal fishing and deforestation, and measuring CO2 levels among other projects of the highest importance for the future of mankind and of our planet.”

Stellar Frontiers work with Roscosmos to provide the training required to go to space.

Space Perspective are taking additional initiatives involving not only sciences but also art and education. “It is important that we interest kids early in space exploration,” Jane states, “and the best way to do that is to involve them. We have done a few of these with Spaceship Neptune. On one occasion with flew an ozone instrument for the University of Florida and another time we took to space art from a group of school kids.” It is laudable that Jane and her team are investing in involving younger generations from all fields. There is a huge decrease in the western world of kids going into STEM careers and the situation is even worse with girls. “Spaceflight has an incredible ability to inspire,” she comments, “and if we get children involved, they’ll grow up with a much better understanding of space, planet Earth and humanity as a whole. They’ll also be more likely to follow a career in a STEM discipline.”

For anyone to operate for long periods of time in a space station, they have to be intensively trained. Stellar Frontiers currently work with Roscosmos for this purpose, the Russian programme that aims at having a fully operational space station (the Russian Orbital Space Station) within this decade. In fact, it has been a while since Russian authorities began talking about a potential gradual withdrawal from the International Space Station (ISS).

Geordie tells me that they offer different kinds of preparation for spaceflight, from a three-day Astronaut Orientation experience conducted in partnership with Orbite (a company specialised in luxury space hospitality) in which guests experience space food designed by a Michelin Starred team, nights spent stargazing alongside astronomers and a zero-gravity flight to an intensive astronaut training programme at Star City in Russia lasting between three and six months. Star City is a highly restricted military facility northeast of Moscow, served by the airfield at Chkalovsky Airport, where cosmonauts have been trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC) since the 1960s. “It is not as hard as people think,” Geordie assures me. Apparently, anyone with a decent level of fitness and agility can complete the programme.

Zero-gravity flights have become increasingly popular among HNWIs.

Of course, the training required depends on what kind of space journey you want to take. It is not the same to enter low earth orbit as it is to spend 10 days on a space station. Stellar Frontiers can even arrange for clients to experience a spacewalk from the ISS. This has never been done before by a private citizen. I wonder who will be first.

So, if you have the funds and the will, get ready to take your protein pills and put your helmet on. You are about to float in a most peculiar way, sitting in a tin can, far above the world.



Words: Julia Pasarón

Opening picture: Space Perspective’s Neptune’s maiden flight.

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