The Beijing firm Spacevision has released a vision statement that should make competitors in the US sit up. It intends to create a balloon with a pressurised hull to take paying passengers 40 km up, to the edge of space. They will then drop back to earth in pressure suits with parachutes attached. This long, long free fall is going to be far, far scarier than anything offered by Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic carrier is designed to scrape the edge of space and features a spell of zero gravity, and Space Adventures, which has taken paying passengers like free software evangelist Mark Shuttleworth to the International Space Station. Those are missions completed wholly within hulls. But the Chinese parachute cuts the passenger loose, like that scene in 2001 in which Hal 9000 turns into a homicidal lunatic.
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The parachute is part of a pressure chute, which is apparently ready to deploy. The balloon is now on the drawing board, and the Chinese can soon start selling tickets for sub-orbital tourism, which seems poised to become the sunrise sector of the industry. If the modern age is defined by the freedom to travel, the decades ahead will be characterised by the ability to travel anywhere — under the sea, to the rim of active volcanoes, and to the edge of space.
Balloon flights will be relatively cheap, and the Chinese effort should be able to beat competing balloon projects like World View Enterprises in the US on the crucial issue of price. It would be fitting if balloons overtook conventional craft in this new space race. Human flight began with balloons like that of the Montgolfier brothers, before heavier air craft took over the market. Perhaps we shall see the same phenomenon repeated at the edge of space.