Wednesday, June 23, 2021

A Matter of Perspective

An artist's concept of the view from a Space Perspective flight. Image source: Space Perspecive.

Space Perspective announced today that they're now booking flights from Kennedy Space Center starting in 2024.

Introducing a new era in luxury travel experiences: Space Perspective reimagines the thrill of space exploration with the world’s most radically gentle voyage to space. Space Explorers and travel adventurers looking to upgrade their bucket list can now savor 360-degree views of planet Earth from 20 mi/30 km above in a luxurious six hour trip, inside Spaceship Neptune, propelled by a state-of-the-art space balloon the size of a football stadium. Up to eight guests can have the sensational experience from the comfort of plush, reclining seats in a beautifully appointed capsule, complete with a bar and a bathroom, for $125,000 each.

If you're looking for a trip to “space”, this isn't it.

Sure, it'll be a pretty view, but it's not “space.”

Many U.S. government agencies define “space” as beginning at 50 miles, or about 80 kilometers. That number can be traced back to the X-15 program. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to military pilots who exceeded that altitude.

The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and other international agencies use the Karman Line as the definition of where “space” begins. Hungarian mathematician Theodore von Kármán in the 1950s argued that the point where orbital dynamics forces exceed aerodynamic forces was a sensible place to set the limit. Based on data available at the time, that worked out to about 100 kilometers.

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell in October 2020 wrote that, using modern sources of data, “von Kármán’s argument places the line close to 80 km, largely independent of atmospheric variations and satellite properties.”

80 kilometers or 100 kilometers, either definition is far higher than Space Perspective's capabilities.

Earth's atmospheric layers. Image source: NASA.

The 30-kilometer limit for Space Perspective is the upper layer of the stratosphere. The highest altitude reached by a skydiver jumping out of a high-altitude balloon was Alan Eustace in 2014. His altitude was 135,890 feet, or about 41.4 kilometers. The uncrewed Japanese research balloon BU60-1 in 2002 reached an altitude of 53 kilometers. These balloons reached the lower reaches of the mesosphere.

The highest altitude reached by the X-15 was 314,688 feet (95.9 km) by Robert White in 1962. The highest altitude by a ground-launched airplane was 123,523 feet (37.6 km) by Russian pilot Alexandr Fedotov in 1977.

The view of Kennedy Space Center from an altitude of 30 kilometers, as seen during the SpaceX CRS-21 flight on December 6, 2020. Image source: SpaceX.

This image from the fuselage of a SpaceX Falcon 9 during launch on December 6, 2020 shows the view of the Space Coast from an altitude of 30 kilometers, the limit for Space Perspective.

Two other companies offering suborbital adventure tourism flights are Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. Those are rocket-powered vehicles.

In May 2021, the Virgin Galactic ship VSS Unity reached an altitude of 55.45 miles, or 89 kilometers. A ticket for a Virgin Galactic flight costs $250,000.

A January 2021 Blue Origin New Shepard flight reached an altitude of 350,827 feet, or 106.9 kilometers. Blue Origin has yet to announce a ticket price.

Other companies have offered adventure tourism flights from the Kennedy Space Center runway.

Starfighters signed a Space Act Agreement in 2009 to offer flights on privately-operated Lockheed F-104 Starfighter aircraft. At one time, Starfighters offered suborbital space plane training flights, but no suborbital space planes have flown from KSC. Starfighters now offers F-104 pilot training programs.

Swiss Space Systems promised suborbital flights by 2015, but the company failed in 2017, amid allegations of financial shenanigans.

SpaceX is now offering orbital adventure tourism flights from Pad 39A. The Inspiration4 mission is scheduled to launch with four civilians in September. They'll spend about three days in orbit.

Starting in 2022, SpaceX will transport Axiom Space customers to the International Space Station, which orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles (400 kilometers).

If you want to go into “space”, you'll have to pay for a ride on a rocket-powered vehicle.

If you want to see “space” but not get close to it, Space Perspective might be an option.

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