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What's it like to float through the stratosphere? Pictures taken during the first high-altitude test of World View Enterprises' scaled-down prototype for a balloon flight system provide some clues about the views.
"We couldn't be any more excited about the results from this test flight," Jane Poynter, World View's CEO, said in a news release issued Tuesday. The June 18 tryout marked a significant step in World View's plan to offer tourist trips into the stratosphere starting in 2016.
The flight brought a remote-controlled, balloon-borne craft up to a height of 120,000 feet (36.5 kilometers) and back down to 50,000 feet (15 kilometers). Then the craft was cut loose from the balloon and guided to a soft landing using an innovative parafoil.
The test over Roswell, New Mexico, marked a world record for the highest parafoil flight, World View said.
World View's Tycho prototype is just one-tenth the size of the pressurized capsule that the Arizona-based company plans to build for its Voyager tours. But Tycho's maiden voyage put the system's aerodynamics to a valuable initial test, said Taber MacCallum, who is World View's co-founder and chief technology officer (as well as Poynter's husband).
"I feel like we're on track," MacCallum told NBC News. "And we've got a lot of work to do, oh my gosh. It was really great to see the first flight profile executed for the first time. ... One thing that surprised us all is just how smooth it ended up being in flight."
World View plans to continue flying the Tycho, which is available for high-altitude research during the test program. Eventually, the company will build and test a capsule big enough to accommodate six passengers and two pilots, on flights that rise to nearly 100,000 feet (30 kilometers) for a space-like view.
"Our Voyagers will look out this enormous window at the spectacular view of our planet: the curvature of the Earth, that thin blue line against the backdrop of this beautiful starscape, the blackness of space that really only astronauts have seen until now," Poynter said.
Arizona recent enacted a law that provides commercial spaceflight companies in the state with enhanced protection from liability, smoothing the way for World View to fly out of Page. Even though the company's balloons won't technically go into outer space, the Federal Aviation Administration ruled that the flights could be licensed as suborbital launches.
The ticket price is $75,000 per seat, and MacCallum said seats have been sold for the first three flights.