World View Enterprises, a Tucson, Arizona start-up, has gotten FAA approval for a revolutionary experience, riding 19 miles into the stratosphere and getting a spectacular view of the planet… by balloon.
Which may not sound like much to most jaded humans, until you remember that a commercial airliner generally flies no more than one mile high. Mount Everest, the highest point on the planet, is about 5.5 miles high. You’re still in atmosphere, and it’s not quite considered orbit (officially designated as being 100 km or 62 miles high)… but for the view, I’d say it’s frackin’ close enough.
The concept is simple enough: A very large helium balloon lifts a capsule of two crew and up to six passengers to a target of 19 miles. After four hours in flight (including two hours at maximum altitude), the balloon detaches, and the crew control an aerofoil parachute to land the capsule at a designated landing area. (See a video of the proposed flight.)
There are two downsides to this venture: One, the loss of helium in the balloon, once it is detached. Helium, we’ve finally realized, is a dwindling resource that we really can’t replenish in any reasonable method, and eventually, even this use would probably be banned as too wasteful. And Two, though you’ve gone very high, you haven’t reached actual space.
(Oh, maybe three downsides: You’re up there with a two-man flight crew, so you may be inhibited from certain more intimate activities while you’re up there (translation: No opportunities to join the 19-Mile-High club… unless maybe you want to invite the crew over and make it a four-way).
But at a cost of $75,000—as opposed to the projected $250,000 cost of a rocket flight on Space Ship One—wealthy-but-not-stinkin’-rich tourists may consider the trip to be worth it. (Actually, the bulk of the flight cost is paying for the helium.) I’m pretty sure you’d be high enough up to clearly see the curvature of the Earth, and therefore, a clear impression of our planet being a very finite body in a practically infinite universe… something I think a lot of people in this world should see.
Years ago, I read Yukinobu Hoshino’s graphic novel 2001 Nights, and was very impressed by the very first story in it; in which the U.S. President and the Soviet Premier took a secret trip into orbit, so they could see the Earth from orbit. In so doing, they were as impressed by Spaceship Earth as every astronaut who’s ever flown into space. They fully understood the need to break off any warring tendencies and begin to work together, for the sake of the planet and everyone upon it.
I can think of quite a few politicians who should take that trip. And any number of corporate executives who should be on the next series of flights. I’d even go so far as to suggest that, when such trips become more commonplace, they should become mandatory for every cabinet-level official to take before they begin a single day on the job.
Anyone and everyone whose position can have a significant impact on a major portion of our ecosphere needs the proper perspective of the situation; and now that we’re finally in a position to be able to present it to them, we should. And as we rapidly approach the point at which it will be impossible for us to reverse the warming trend and environmental damage that we, ourselves, have caused, the sooner we can impress that perspective on all government and corporate officials, the better.