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How a capsule tied to a Boeing 747-sized balloon will herald edge of space tourism in India

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk may have revived the race to space, but others are not far behind. It’s possible to reach the edge of space efficiently in a balloon.

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Sipping on chai and munching pakodas while floating in space is not in the realm of sci-fi. In India, one startup wants to take everyone up to the ‘edge of space’, not in a rocket, but in a gigantic helium-filled balloon tethered to a space capsule. When the balloon is filled with helium, it will expand to its full size — that of a Boeing 747.

For Aakash Porwal, founder-CEO of Space Aura, the challenge is not to send a balloon 30-35 km into the stratosphere. It is to bring it back down safely.

“We will fly people to a height that is more than four times that of Mt. Everest. The challenge is to send humans up and bring them back safely, and when we do it, we want the whole world to see that it is possible,” he said.

Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk may have revived the race to space, but others are not far behind. It’s possible to reach the “edge of space” efficiently in a balloon. And startups across the world — from Space Perspective in Florida and Halo Space in Madrid to Space Aura in Mumbai — are promising just that.

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To the edge of space, in a Boeing-insized balloon

With four of the six tickets already sold for Rs 50 lakh each, Space Aura will see a lift-off in less than three years.

“We initially planned for 2025, but I believe that 2026 is more realistic,” said Porwal.

The idea to start a space tourism company was not a eureka moment for him. After dropping out of engineering college, he dedicated eight years of his life— self-learning about space, and developing high-altitude balloons. Porwal, 34, took inspiration from the growing success of Musk’s SpaceX.

“It is crazy and very niche.”

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How it will all pan out in the sky

Space Aura’s capsule, christened prototype SKAP1, will be tethered to a high performance ‘space balloon system’, complete with an enormous parachute. The capsule will accommodate six tourists and one pilot with ample leg room and comfortable walking space. It will be pressurised during flight and will have environmental control and life support systems that maintain oxygen, pressure, and temperature levels.

Even though passengers will not experience microgravity, they would still need to prepare before flying. Prior to the launch, which will be from Karnataka, Maharashtra, or Madhya Pradesh, the group of space tourists will undergo a week of basic physical training.

The duration of the entire flight is expected to be about 5.5 to 6 hours. Tourists will ascend for about 90 minutes, spend an hour gazing out at the earth below, and begin their 90-minute descent with the balloon and parachute.

“We want to provide an exceptional and unique experience, where people can see the beauty of earth and feel the vastness of space,” said Porwal, who wants to bring the cost down within the next decade or two, with the aim of making such trips accessible to everyone.

At one point during the descent, the parachute will open up and the balloon will detach. The capsule will be programmed to land within a designated 10 km radius. The Space Aura team is currently exploring the feasibility of landing on a barge at sea.

While the early balloons will launch from bare ground, Space Aura eventually plans to build a spaceport and launchpad, said Pranil M, the creative lead at the startup, which was founded in 2017.

The inside of the capsule will have a similar aesthetic along with a 360-degree view and snacks with an Indian twist.

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The science of stratospheric balloons

Balloons are safer, slower, cheaper, and more widely used than spacecraft or satellites. The high-altitude ones fly much higher than aircraft, and are called zero-pressure balloons, as their basic requirement is to not burst, says Pranil.

Common high-altitude balloons, which are typically weather and research balloons, are launched to heights above 18 km, floating in mid-stratosphere from 20-30 km. There are thousands of balloons with scientific equipment and weather sensors currently in the sky, and there have also been crewed balloons that have reached a height of over 22 km.

Scientists and explorers have been experimenting with them for decades, but none of these balloons carried humans.

“I don’t know why this almost-space tourism has not taken off,” said Jayant Murthy, senior professor at Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) and lead for the high-altitude stratospheric ballooning research group.

“There is no new technology involved and everything has been done before, if not commercially. I would imagine the most difficult part is getting the required permissions.”

In 2012, Felix Baumgarner from Austria jumped from 39 km above the ground, having ascended with a helium-filled balloon. Two years later, computer scientist Alan Eustace free-dove from a height of 41 km. Both daredevils reached the stratosphere with a balloon, which is exactly what Space Aura aims to do too, but with a closed and safe luxury capsule.

At a height of 30-35 km or over 100,000 ft from the surface — often called the “edge of space” or “near space” by commercial spaceflight entrepreneurs — gravity and atmosphere are very much present. At stratospheric heights, a balloon starts to stretch and expand due to the steadily dropping pressure. These changes that the material of the balloon undergoes puts a hard limit on how high a high-performance high-altitude balloon could climb.

The Space Aura team they’re in discussions to build the balloon with TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), which also made and/or tested the balloons for Eustace’s and Baumgartner’s flights. Eustace’s balloon lead is on the Aura team today.

Both Baumgartner and Eustace made their jumps in a pressure suit. These suits have layers — breathable material is the innermost, followed by a gas layer to maintain temperature and pressure like a thermos, a restraint layer made of mesh that maintains the shape of the suit, and an outermost heat-and-flame resistant layer.

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The safety checks

For now, Space Aura plans to use helium for the balloon, although they haven’t entirely ruled out hydrogen. Balloons today tend to typically be filled with helium as opposed to flammable hydrogen. But the rise of the hydrogen economy, rapid advancement in safe technology, and depletion of medically important helium, has now increased the demand for hydrogen again.

And while balloons may be more safe than spacecraft, they can be quite difficult to manouver and control when there is too much air turbulence.

While not severe, a small amount of turbulence occurs at a height of 25-30 km, where the stratosphere undergoes change in temperature and pressure, Pranil said.

“Sometimes at these height, the air is so thin that the side of the capsule facing the earth becomes freezing cold and the side facing the sun is boiling hot. The materials of both our capsule and the balloon will have to withstand those extremes,” said Pranil.

The space capsule is made of reinforced aluminium, built to withstand any kind of unexpected crash into land or ocean. The balloons that the team will use will be made of high-performance polyethylene, would be white or transparent, and extremely thin.

“The air is absolutely calm above 10-20 km or so. You can see the transition in our high-altitude flights. You will get winds at lower altitudes but we know these huge NASA balloons survive with sensitive instrumentation,” said IIA’s Murthy.

The balloon is built to withstand any unexpected wind forces, and the capsule’s pilot will always be on standby. To mitigate the risk of any damage to people and property, all launchers plan to have their balloons fly in remote areas.

Such safety considerations are being designed right now by Space Aura designers.

Currently, the team is working on finalising the design and material of the balloon and capsule, and performing a successful test. The first test without any crew, where the balloon will fly directly to a height of 32km, is being targeted for the last quarter of 2024, said Porwal.

Sudheer Kumar, director of the Capacity Building Program Office at ISRO, is cautiously optimistic.

“If this was viable, we are left to wonder why such tourism has not taken off yet,” he said. “Nevertheless, it is indeed good to see such startups being innovative.”

He doesn’t see it as ‘space tourism’ as much as ‘stratospheric balloon tourism’ because tourists will not cross the Karman line–the conventional boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

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Bollywood in space

Porwal always nurtured a passion for building a space business. He had previously worked with AI startups. After he registered Space Aura in 2017, he approached rocket companies in the US to work on advertising in space and high altitude.

Subsequently, he stopped sending up custom digital screens that displayed ads in stratospheric balloons and decided to focus on sending humans to the same heights instead.

In the beginning, Porwal’s aim was to continue the legacy of the jumping daredevils. He even recruited two women Indian skydivers to test out his plan. However, in the process of working on the project, he realised he was more interested in sending regular citizens than expert adventurers, and decided to pivot to stratospheric balloon tourism.

While Space Aura is the only Indian commercial entity working on high-altitude tourism, there are other companies globally which are simultaneously pursuing the same goal.

At the moment, these are US’ Space Perspective and World View Enterprises, Spain’s SpaceHALO and Zero2Infinity, and Japan’s Iwaya Giken. Several of these startups have raised significant funds.

“We raised pre-seed funding from my own close network of friends and connections, and we are in discussions for the next round of funding,” said Porwal.

The flight of the balloon will involve approvals and regulations from ISRO, which has been cooperating with dozens of new space startups in the country. After the launch of the Department of Space’s INSPACe, which acts as a facilitator between startups and ISRO, the number of space startups in India has grown considerably.

In 2019, there were only 11. The count rose to 21 by 2020. Just in the last two years, more than 47 new companies have come up, with the country currently home to over 100 space startups. But only one so far wants to send people high up into the sky with giant hot air balloons.

“When we started our company and floated the idea of stratospheric balloons, people looked at us like we were crazy,” said Porwal. “Today, investors are dying to put their money into space tourism startups.”

Even before the team at Space Aura have had their first test flight, the entertainment industry has caught on to them. Their customisable trips are being tapped for film shoots and concerts, claimed Porwal. 

“Space Aura is in discussions with eminent Indian producers and directors to produce India’s first movie and concert in space using our Spaceship SKAP1.”

Earlier this year, a Russian project called The Challenge became the first film to have been shot in space even as it was Hollywood star Tom Cruise who first decided to make a movie in space in 2020. Seems the Russians beat the Americans in the space race one more time. Perhaps, it is not too far away that Bollywood numbers will be set against the backdrop of earth and space as seen from inside balloon capsules.

“Space tourism is a wonderful idea and I hope that this team is successful. It must be a life-changing experience to go that high and to see the brilliant Earth against the deep blue-black of space,” said Murthy.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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