This giant balloon will take you to space—for just $50,000

Traveling is wonderful, but an eight-hour flight often equates to numb legs, an aching back, and terrible snacks. Penny-pinching airlines have ruined the experience of air travel. But what if you were taking an eight-hour flight into space?

That’s the promise of World View, a startup that plans to use a helium balloon to lift you 100,000 feet above the earth in flights that launch from the Grand Canyon starting in 2024. For $50,000, you can enjoy the slow ascent into the atmosphere, while taking in extraordinary views through a 5-foot-wide window that puts the view of any dinky window seat to shame. The capsule and its interior are being designed by PriestmanGoode, a UK design firm known for its work on airline interiors for Airbus, Qatar Airways, and United Airlines.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

World View is the latest entrant into the burgeoning space tourism industry, which includes Virgin Galactic’s zero gravity plane flights ($450,000 a seat) Blue Origin rocket trips (tickets still unpriced), and fellow space balloon competitor Space Perspective, which is charging $125,000 to lift aa 360-degree viewing room into space. It’s a young market, but you can already see a line of differentiation: Some companies are selling a relaxed journey to reach the tip of nature, while others promise high-g adventure out of The Right Stuff.

Technically, World View never reaches the true altitude of space, but it goes high enough to see the curved edges of the earth from above, and to see our world from another perspective. That formed the central design challenge: “What we don’t want to do as designers is go in and spoil that experience for the passenger,” says Daniel Macinnes, design director at PriestmanGoode.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

Designing a space capsule to celebrate the earth

While World View balloon has been in development for nearly a decade, Macinnes and his team have been working for the past six months to translate this flight technology into a sensation of travel like none other. The images you see here are renderings that don’t yet depict the final design.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

That sensation starts with the capsule design itself. The cabin features a hexagonal geometry that’s optimized for pressurization—which will allow people to fly without getting nosebleeds. PriestmanGoode has been working with engineers to hone everything that’s malleable beyond that basic shape. That includes figuring out the material and shape of the capsule’s fairings—or the paneling on the outside of the craft to give the capsule a unique look and improve aerodynamics.

It also carries over to the windows. Passengers will be free to walk around the cabin during the journey, but the windows are really the core of the passenger experience during flight.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

PriestmanGoode’s earlier design experiments featured many small, irregularly shaped windows through the cabin. The design reminded me of sci-fi space fighter. The designers have since eliminated the smaller windows, placing each pair of seats in front of a single, circular window. Part of the decision to have fewer windows comes down to The same problem that airlines face in every design decision they make: weight. Windows are heavy, and every ounce of weight in the capsule either slows its ascent or requires the use of more helium (which is expensive and wasteful).

However, as Macinnes explains, giving passengers a single, five-foot-wide window focuses the experience on that singular view.

“We love aviation and light…but this takes it to another level. You look at the window [out of a plane] at 30,000k feet and it’s nice but it’s a really restricted view,” says Macinnes, referring to the 9-inch-wide window on most commercial jets. “What we’re trying to do is to make sure everyone is just totally blown away…nobody has experienced that size of a window on an aircraft. You’ll hopefully be gobsmacked when you look out.”

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

Part of that gobsmacking comes down to balancing the distraction from that window at any given time. That means as PriestmanGoode iterates its design, it has been cutting LCD screens out of the cabin. (Travelers will likely just be handed tablets instead.) It also means that as people walk into the cabin for the first time, a unique lighting array will create a “vivid, blow your socks off” feel to stepping on board, according to Macinnes . But shortly after boarding, the lighting will get out of the way. “We want to make it dramatic when you walk in, but then just disappear, enhancing the viewing pleasure when looking out that window,” Macinnes says.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

Constructing a high class cabin

As for the rest of the cabin experience, that’s a careful ratio of posh amenities and weight restrictions—a balance that’s causing weekly iterations on the designs you see here.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

So there will be compromises. The main cabin itself will be fairly minimal, shaving back on veneer to keep weight low. But the capsule will include what Macinnes promises is a reasonably sized bathroom, with hotel-level fit and finish (and yes, a window so you don’t miss out on the view when you have to go). PriestmanGoode is also working to perfect the capsule’s seats, which, like airline seats, have to feel comfortable for a full day of sitting, but also need to function with as few heavy components as possible. That means no one knows yet if the chairs will spin 360 degrees, or have motorized assistance, or even what materials they will be made out of. But given that World View imagines you might use the capsule, not just for a flight, but for team-building workshops or even weddings, they do recognize that seating needs to be more flexible than what we see here.

[Image: courtesy PriestmanGoode]

As for food and drink, World View will have a concierge on board to help handle these components of the passenger experience. But weight and space restrictions are so significant that the World View’s designers are currently working with World View’s chefs to figure out exactly what types of food can be served in the capsule, in order to plan the equipment needed for preparation and consumption. Given the high price point of a ticket, World View wants its culinary bar to veer closer to the amuse bouche from a Michelin restaurant than a $12 coach-class protein box.

“It really is a spaceship,” says Macinnes. “It needs to be as lightweight as possible to get to that type of altitude, but we don’t want to scrimp on the luxuries that the customer would expect.”

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