Sitting on Top of the World
A glimpse of heaven 32,800 meters above Huesca, Spain.
The world is full of views, who says we need to ride a rocket to get there?
In our homes, our offices, our tiny dens of comfortable warmth and honed tunnel vision, it’s easy to forget the complicated yet simple beauty of the rock we call home.
When you peer out a window at the coastlines on the curved blue bulb 36 kilometers beneath you, you pause for a moment alone with your home below, struck with awe as your breath is sucked from your lungs. It’s an experience few have lived, but all have deemed life-changing.
Enter space engineer José Mariano López Urdiales, founder and CEO of zero2infinity and the man looking to give you the world. Instead of offering a jarring rocket-powered blast into the cosmos, the top graduate from the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid in aeronautical engineering is offering a slow and steady ascent aboard bloon, an intimate six-person pod attached to a zero-pressure polyethylene helium balloon (sail).
Urdiales has been developing the concept of using balloons to deliver private space flight for the past decade after Peter H. Diamandis, founder, chairman, and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, challenged him and his fellow classmates at the International Space University (ISU) with the possibility of space tourism. ISU is an interdisciplinary school that meets each summer to discuss a single theme for space development and exploration.
“[Diamandis] gave us the topic and asked, ‘What can you do with that?’” recalls Urdiales. “Throughout my life, I’ve met many astronauts — some that went to the moon, some that just went to orbit. When you talk to them, the core experience was the view of the earth. Seeing the curved horizon, the earth that shines blue against the black background; it’s a view that leaves no one the same.”
How much would someone be willing to pay to fly on a spaceship without windows? It’s a question Urdiales asked himself. After all, astronauts didn’t sacrifice family, time, and careers merely for microgravity — they could settle that fixation with a quick ride on MGM Studio’s Tower of Terror. According to his conversations with colleagues and friends, a primary value was the view. That’s when Urdiales realized that rocket propulsion was out of the equation.
“Space tourism is not about rockets, it’s about windows,” he says. “The rest of the hardware is clutter, support. If you can have the window in the right place, in a safe, sustainable, and cost-effective manner, you’re satisfying your customer.” It was a difficult conclusion for a man who worked on the tank cryogenics for the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ariane 5 Evolution Space launcher and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) specifically to work in the space propulsion laboratory.
The windows became the centerpiece of his design. He had to go big. If the window became a tiny porthole, the rider wouldn’t be able to easily see the Earth’s curves. The window had to be wide enough to share — a panoramic landscape for two rather than a pair of greasy noses pressed up against an airplane window.
To see the earth as the astronauts describe it, bloon would have to reach from 30 to 35 km above the surface. At 36 km, during bloon’s two-hour cruise phase (see sidebar), the passenger is above 99.5 percent of the atmosphere’s mass. The remaining gas in the 0.5 percent on top of the pod does have some affect on the view — the sky would be slightly darker — but the added visual experience doesn’t offset the complexities and safety difficulties involved with topping out, according to Urdiales.
|At the XIV European Balloon Festival held July 8, 2010 in the city of Igualada, Spain, an uninhabited bloon reached 33 km. Zero2infinity paid tribute to Spain's La Roja (The Red) national football team by sending the team’s World Cup 2010 jersey up for the ride.|
The team at Barcelona, Spain-based zero2infinity is now working with the Institute of Photonic Sciences on the laser technology needed to add head-up transparent displays that project flight information on the window of the pod to keep customer eyes focused outside.
“We think it makes a lot of sense,” Urdiales insists. “We’re not doing it to be fancy, but when you have someone paying so much for a couple hundred minutes of seeing the earth like that, every minute counts, and having the passenger look at a flat LCD or OLED display would be rude.” The minimalistic information could also be removed with a simple request.
Reaching 36 Km
The zero2infinity team, which now operates with seven full-time engineers, is working on the capsule aerodynamics so the pod remains stable throughout the flight.
“There really isn’t that much data on capsule flight because the capsules going through this part of the atmosphere are normally going much faster,” says Urdiales. “Most of the data comes from missile development and there is not much data on the behavior of things falling through the atmosphere calmly, not from some extreme altitude. We’re using the legacy information that exists, but also the XFlow CFD package from Next Limit Technologies.”
The zero-pressure balloon is open and doesn’t hold pressure. As opposed to a children’s balloon (closed with more pressure inside the balloon rather than outside), really big balloons begin to resemble a giant plastic bag. The bloon’s sail is similar to those used to bring scientific equipment to such altitudes. According to Urdiales, the Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES) French space agency uses the same balloons, and they regularly lift several-ton payloads to 40 km. The sail roughly measures 800,000 cubic meters with a diameter of about 100 meters. It makes for one large grocery bag.
Below the sail is a chain that has a radio beacon, reflector, and a couple of parachutes — one guided, one unguided. The six-seat pod hangs below with room for two pilots and four passengers. Pilots would have to be certified gas balloon and glider pilots with vehicle-specific training. The pod also features a small parafoil, the third level of redundancy.
“We have three ways to stop the thing, one that is guided and two that are not,” says Urdiales. “This is a refinement of what is currently done by [CNES] in its unmanned balloons.”
Urdiales is trying to use off-the-shelf equipment as much as possible to make the required investment convenient, as he’s seen other fledgling companies have complications when working with custom equipment.
“All of these bits and pieces will work on their own when you buy them off the shelf, but you have to see how they will behave together. This system is much more than the sum of its parts and the integration is going to be an exciting challenge.”
Rain or Shine
Taking off in all weather conditions hasn’t been done with balloons of this size. But in order to be competitive and not keep customers waiting, Urdiales wants an “almost all-weather” design. He believes that part of the riddle lies within shielding bloon when it’s close to the ground. The team has even tinkered with an inflatable dome they suspect could be the key to beating the elements.
When the weather pushes back a CNES balloon, the agency doesn’t mind to wait a week. This is why no all-weather, high-altitude balloons exist within the space agency. CNES can wait. Sure, it costs them money, but it’s a government program.
A commercial enterprise doesn’t have such a luxury — or the deep government pockets — to sit and wait out the elements. Learning how to solve this dilemma in a less expensive, more reliable manner not only requires knowledge about the weather but also suggestions on the dome design.
Urdiales recently brought in Pierre Dedieu, an advisor formerly with CNES, to help with the balloon launch procedure. Dedieu is actually tied up in Sweden at the moment as he is consulting for the Swedish Space Corporation which is launching a balloon that is twice bloon’s volume.
Proof of Concept
Work has begun on the fully-functional 1/10th-scale probe, which contains everything from the interior design (including a breakthrough when a place was finally found for a bathroom in the tight quarters), to the life support system and cabin atmosphere.
“We want to start making it fully functional so that even if it’s small, it can get rid of CO2, and measure the quantities of different things in the cabin atmosphere to make sure it’s comfortable and safe,” says Urdiales.
For example, an airplane has an endless supply of air because it is designed to bleed air from the compressor in the engine. Bloon has no such luck because it’s flying through very thin air, almost like a vacuum.
“You have to bring your air with you,” says Urdiales. “It is like a submarine that doesn’t go up often, or a space capsule. And you need a way to get rid of the CO2. The method used in submarines, and the one in the scaled probe, will be a chemical that stores the CO2.”
Zero2infinity is also using geological information and maps with flight information for test flights in order to follow the probe, see where it’s headed and check if the trajectory remains as expected/predicted. A test run is scheduled for late summer, but locations and dates were unavailable at press time.
Bloon could start taking passengers as soon as 2013, but Urdiales remains realistic.
“Our planning is for 2013, but there are some uncertainties as to the certification process," he says. "When you try to certify such a different vehicle that is part balloon, part guided parafoil, part spacecraft … it’s much safer to certify than a rocket-based system, but it’s still more difficult to certify than a normal gas balloon.”
The test flights and certification could take anywhere from six months to two years. The jury is still out on whether or not bloon will be able to fly without the use of pressure suits though the debate remains. On the first voyage, passengers will be required to use pressure suits.
“I’m confident that we can get it to work without pressure suits. When you go down in a submarine to see the Titanic, you don’t wear full-body pressure suits,” Urdiales attests. “We build enough margin and safety systems so the sub doesn’t collapse. When you are in the international space station, you don’t wear a pressure suit. There are procedures in case of a hull integrity failure. We aim for that. Since are moving slowly, we can better understand the stresses that the pods will have, and they are much lower. We have to prove it, and we’ll have to do a bunch of [flights] with pressure suits so that the FAA and the European equivalent are comfortable.”
From a product development standpoint, it’s interesting to know that the Soviets only started launching people into space via rocket because nuclear warheads headed in the same direction were extremely heavy and their delivery systems had to be very powerful. According to Urdiales, rocket propulsion is collateral damage from missile development.
The world is full of views made for 36 km, who says we need to ride a rocket to get there?
Read: "The Role of Balloons in the Future Development of Space Tourism" by José Mariano López-Urdiales.
Read: "Space Tourism: From Dream to Reality."