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Japanese balloon startup wants to 'democratize space' – with $180,000 ticket price

Aim is to bring entry fee down to tens of thousands of dollars, if you have that lying around

Japanese startup Iwaya Giken has pulled the sheets off a two-seater airtight sphere that it plans to hook to a helium balloon and send space tourists into the stratosphere.

"It's safe, economical and gentle for people," CEO Keisuke Iwaya told journalists during the announcement this week. "The idea is to make space tourism for everyone."

"Everyone" who has ¥24 million, almost $180,000, burning a hole in their pocket anyway. But for commoners who are unlikely to ever see that amount of money in their lives, Iwaya said he will eventually gun for a slightly more palatable several million yen, or tens of thousands of dollars.

Moving on from the fact that any time a company says they want to "democratize" something, they mean something else entirely, Iwaya Giken says the balloon and capsule, which looks a lot like a TIE Fighter cockpit, will be able to rise to an altitude of 25 kilometers (82,000ft or 15 miles) where passengers will be able to view the curvature of the Earth.

The stratosphere is the middle layer of Earth's atmosphere, after the toposphere but before the mezosphere, where atmospheric entry begins, so not outer space but the next best thing without the aid of rockets. It is also the region Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner rose to by balloon for his record-breaking skydive of 39km in 2012, reaching speeds of 1,357.64kph (843.6mph) and breaking the sound barrier on his way down.

Passengers should have no such concerns as the 1.5m (4.9ft) diameter plastic capsule is heavily reinforced – as long as the cables attaching it to the balloon stay true.

Iwaya Giken is partnering with Japanese travel agency JTB Corp to begin offering flights whenever the company is ready, which is said to be later this year.

The journey would set off from Hokkaido, rising for two hours to 25km, remain at that altitude for a sight-seeing hour, then take another hour descending to terra firma, where the capsule and balloon can then be reused. Given the length of the flight, The Register recommends would-be space tourists thoroughly empty their bladders before leaving (there are no discernible facilities) and make sure they really, really, really want to be up there.

Applications opened on Tuesday and will run until the end of August, with the first five passengers announced in October. Flights will be about a week apart, the company said.

The project has been in development since 2012 and could be seen as a response to other space tourism initiatives, which remain way out of reach for normal people. Virgin Galactic has begun selling tickets for a ride on its space plane VSS Unity for $450,000. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin has offered trips on its New Shepard rocket for free up to $28 million. Texas-based Axiom Space wants to sell 10-day trips to the International Space Station for $55 million a seat.

While sinking $180,000 on a balloon ride is still too expensive by all accounts, reducing the price to tens of thousands of dollars may make space feasible for the most dedicated enthusiasts.

Just make sure flights are cleared with the US military far in advance – they seem to have an issue with balloons. ®

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