Space tourism has been a hot topic for years, with passengers shelling out up to $20 million for a shot at getting out of Earth's atmosphere. You could end up saving a lot of money if you're willing to settle for near-space instead. World View Enterprises is planning to launch passenger balloons to more than 98,000 feet above the planet's surface.
Naturally, a regular hot air balloon won't work. World View's concept is to use a massive helium balloon carrying a capsule with up to eight passengers. Those passengers will travel in "shirt sleeves" (aka regular clothes) rather than require pressure suits.
After evaluating the project, the FAA has designated World View's approach as a commercial space flight. The FAA has written that the Paragon Space Development Corporation-designed capsule will need to be "space qualified" for protecting the occupants at the altitude at which it's intended to fly.
One thing the FAA won't comment on is what "outer space" means. "The FAA will not address the more difficult question of whether Paragon's proposed altitude of 30 kilometers constitutes outer space," the agency said in a written statement (PDF).
World View is promoting the balloon flights as taking travelers to the "edge of space." The expected cost is $75,000 per ride, with passengers spending about two hours cruising at the highest altitude, checking out the curvature of the planet.
World View hasn't unveiled a timeline for its services taking flight, but the capsule is under construction. It may not be too long before we're hearing about test flights and menus for the onboard beverage offerings.