TOKYO — A Japanese startup announced plans Tuesday to launch commercial space viewing balloon flights that it hopes will bring the otherwise astronomically expensive experience to Earth.
Company CEO Keisuke Iwaya said passengers don’t need to be billionaires, undergo intensive training or have the necessary language skills to fly in a rocket.
“It is safe, economical and gentle to people,” Iwaya told reporters. “The idea is to make space tourism accessible to all.” He said he wanted to “democratize space”.
The company, Iwaya Giken, based in Sapporo, northern Japan, has been working on the project since 2012 and says it has developed an airtight cabin with two seats and a balloon capable of rising to an altitude of 25 kilometers (15 miles). Or about 80,000 feet, where the curve of the Earth can be clearly seen. While passengers won’t be in outer space—the balloon only goes up to about the middle of the stratosphere—they will be higher than in flight on a jet plane and will have an unobstructed view of outer space.
The company teamed up with major Japanese travel agency JTB Corp, which announced plans to cooperate on the project once the company is ready for commercial travel. Initially, one flight will cost about 24 million yen ($180,000), but Iwaya said he aims to eventually bring that down to several million yen ($180,000).
While Japanese space ventures have lagged behind American companies such as SpaceX, Iwaya said he aims to make space more accessible.
SpaceX launched three wealthy businessmen and their astronaut escort to the International Space Station in April for $55 million each — the company’s first private charter flight to the orbiting lab two years after NASA took astronauts there.
But unlike rockets or hot air balloons, the Iwaya Giken vessel will be lifted by helium, which can be extensively reused, and flights will stay safely above Japanese territory or airspace, company officials said. . The maiden voyage is planned for the end of this year as soon as possible.
The balloon, which can carry a pilot and a passenger, will take off from a balloon port in Hokkaido, rise to an altitude of 25 kilometers (15 mi) for two hours and remain there for an hour before descending for one hour. The drum-shaped plastic cabin is 1.5 meters (4.9 ft) in diameter and has several large windows for views of space above or the earth below, the company said.
Applications for the Space Viewing Ride opened on Tuesday and will continue through the end of August. The first five passengers selected will be announced in October, company officials said, and flights will be about a week apart, depending on the weather.