a capsule to travel to the gates of space

Present at the International Astronautical Congress, the companies Stratoflight and Expleo, based in Toulouse, unveiled their project for tourist trips to the gates of space aboard a capsule carried by a giant balloon. All together with a panoramic view of the Earth’s surface, atmosphere and stars.

Stratoflight and Expleo envision a capsule for near-space travel © Expleo

One small step for man. A big step for space tourism. The companies Stratoflight and Expleo, based in Toulouse, presented an extraordinary project during the 73rd edition of the International Astronautical Congress, which took place from September 18 to 22 in Paris: travel to near space aboard a capsule equipped with a huge balloon, with an extra vehicle exit on a balcony, in the stratosphere.

In an astronaut’s shoes

After passing a small medical test (such as that required for registration in a sports club), travelers will equip themselves with a real astronaut suit. They will then be invited to board a capsule that is eight meters long, four meters wide and three meters high, similar to the “nose” of an airplane. “Everything has been imagined to bring life an immersive experience passengers, who will slip into the skin of an astronaut for almost five hours,” smiles Arnaud Longobardi, flight pilot behind the project.

Six people can join the trip, including two pilots. The latter will also be selected on the shutter: they must combine piloting and paragliding skills. As for the passengers flights will be open to all. “But they will be more difficult for people suffering from asthma, diabetes or other pathologies that require external interventions, since it is impossible to remove the suit during the flight”, says Benoit Courouble, head of aviation research at Expleo.

Ready for take-off, go to the near room

Once each traveler is comfortably positioned and secured in their seat, the capsule will be ready to take off. The ascent will happen thanks to a balloon of impressive dimensions : 120 meters in diameter for a capacity of 900,000 cubic meters.

The ascent will last more than two hours until it reaches a height of 35 kilometers. Here is the stratosphere. A unique place that will offer travelers a wide view of the earth’s curved surface, in a circuit that goes from Barcelona to Amsterdam for a start from the center of France. “By looking up, the passengers will be able to see the atmosphere, but also part of space and its stars”, promises Benoît Courouble.

This space walk will be carried out on a kind of “balcony”. “It makes the program unique compared to that developed in France (Zéphalto, Montpellier) or in the USA (Space Perspective, Florida), where trips are made without suits, inside pressurized cabins”, continues Benoît Courouble.

Return to the ground thanks to a paragliding wing

Throughout the descent, travelers will still be able to enjoy the view from their seats, as the shuttle is equipped with large glass compartments. The pilots will gradually deflate the balloon until they reach an altitude of 8,000 meters. So one wide sail that looks like a paragliderwill unfold to take over until arrival on dry land.

The costs of the trial should around 300,000 euros. But “we will offer some flights to passengers who cannot afford it to be able to afford such an experience”, adds Arnaud Longobardi. About a hundred trips will be planned each year, a large part of which will be for scientific research.

A project that is still in the experimental phase

Stratoflight and Expleo are still only at the beginning of the project. “We are in the process to design a capsule prototype with which the first travel attempts in the near space will begin in 2023, empty thanks to remote control”, specifies Arnaud Longobardi.

The process is quite long. Everything must be checked to ensure the safety of both pilots and passengers, from the start of the first flights. “As with all aviation vehicles, the test phases are carried out gradually. Tests are carried out first on the ground, then higher and higher. This part of the program lasts almost a year”, adds Benoît Courouble.

The first tourist flights aboard four different shuttles were to be made in 2025. The goal is for the start to take place from French territory. But nothing is certain yet, as the majority of flights with balloons of this size are launched from the desert for the time being. The landing zone is easier to master. “In order to be allowed to fly near urban areas, we must first prove that we are capable of flying to a defined runway ” says Arnaud Longobardi.

Recyclable materials and hydrogen, for a more “green” tourism

“We received very good feedback at the International Astronautical Congress. We did not expect such enthusiasm,” Arnaud Longobardi is delighted. “What pleases me is the ‘green’ side of the project,” adds Benoît Courouble. The ambition is actually toopen up space tourism to as many people as possiblebut not at the expense of the planet.

The choice thus fell on aluminum to design the exterior of the capsule. “A very easy recyclable metal,” says Benoît Courouble. The interior design was also imagined in bamboo fibres. In addition, the balloon is inflated without combustion, but with hydrogen propulsion which will be produced, the companies assure, “at the starting point, with a local electricity production generated by wind turbines and solar panels. The balloons, developed over several years by CNES and used by NASA, can only fly once and will then be reused. Be careful though, not all of the materials used are recycled and reusable. A matter of safety, because the teams ensure that the structure of the device withstands potential shocks during landing. But work is being done to find solutions for recycling the carbon that is in the capsule.

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