A Cheaper Way to Space?

Joe Kittinger's Record Parachute JumpThis was mainly triggered by the mad lot on Bang Goes the Theory. They sent a small model spaceman up to the edge of space (well 100,000 feet/31,000 metres, depending on who you listen to, space starts at anywhere from 50 to 100 miles above the Earth's surface). The feature originally raised concerns of:

  • A - Weren't they endangering aircraft letting something float up through potential air routes? and

  • B - Weren't they endangering people and property by simply letting their model and cameras fall back down again?



Once past that I wondered why no one had used this to get to space. They were celebrating Joe Kittinger's parachute jump from 102,800 feet in 1960. It was quite a feat, he reached 614 mph during his descent. To give you an idea of just how high that is, a 747 cruises at between 30 and 40,000 feet and has a maximum cruise altitude of 45,000 feet, while Concorde topped out at 60,000 feet. An SR-71 holds the level-flight record at around 85,000 feet, while the highest non-rocket plane was a MiG-25 which hit 123,523 feet. So you get to understand just how high Kittinger went, on an open platform, wearing only a pressure suit (which failed around one of his hands but he kept going despite it inflating).

The show named the project something 500, because it cost £500 to put it together. That was pricey when some Spanish students got to 20 miles (105,600 feet) on a budget of just £56. They were not the first amateurs to reach such heady heights with a balloon though, back in 2007, some Canadians reached 117,597 feet with theirs. Even the Brits have been at it, sending cheese up to the heady heights (and they've now found it again) as well as teddies (images here).

Bear in mind the expense of getting to space (currently around £14,000 per pound apparently, or $120 million a ride), surely getting to within six miles of geosynchronous orbit with a balloon is ridiculously cost effective, admittedly it's probably not so practical for large equipment. Doing it manned is obviously much tougher (the QinetiQ attempt still hasn't launched as far as I'm aware). An Ariane 5 can lift 10,500 kgs to orbit, for example, but then it took 10 years and cost $7 billion to build. On the other hand, NASA has successfully tested a design which should allow a one ton payload to reach 110,000 feet.

So it looks like it'd be a fairly cheap way to get you a long way up (in much the same way SpaceShipOne, the craft that won the X-Prize for being the first reusable private entry to reach space, used another plane to get it to 50,000 feet before it launched). My question is, are there any companies trying to do it? Scale it up and for a million you could probably throw something fairly sizeable into space for a fraction of the cost of your average satellite, let alone the average launch cost.

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