A startup venture in Sapporo, Hokkaido, is striving to popularize high-altitude travel by sending people into the stratosphere in a helium balloon, enabling them to view a stunning spectacle of the Earth from above.
In a manned test flight in late July, the balloon reached a record-high altitude of 6 kilometers, but it is expected to attain its final target of reaching a height of 25 km by the end of this year.
Iwaya Inc., which started the project, says that if the vessel can reach such an altitude, it will be possible in the near future for customers to view the blueness of the Earth below and the darkness of space above on their journeys, albeit with a significant price tag attached for the average customer.
In the morning haze of July 23, the helium-powered balloon quietly lifted off from Iwaya's testing site in the district of Tokachi in Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island.
Akihito Oikawa, 35 years old and part of the startup's space development section, was inside the single-seat cabin, which hangs below the balloon measuring 1.1 meters wide and 1.5 meters high, as it immediately flew up into the air and out of sight.
After reaching a height of 6,072 meters, gas was released and the balloon descended. Roughly two hours later, Oikawa landed on a field 26 km away from the launch site.
The test flight was the venture's first manned attempt to reach an altitude of 6 km. The balloon, which is some 25 meters in height measured from the bottom of the cabin, can reach an altitude of 11 km.
Because breathing becomes difficult at an altitude of over 4 km, the airtight cabin is made of special plastics resistant to outside air pressure and temperatures.
The craft is equipped with a machine capable of sustaining those inside by maintaining a breathable atmosphere, through controlling components such as the cabin's oxygen and water vapor levels.
Iwaya says it will be able to achieve an even greater altitude with a larger balloon. "We have had all our technologies verified for a balloon and a cabin capable of achieving a height of 25 km," a company executive said.
Iwaya was founded in April 2016 by Keisuke Iwaya, 37, who studied aerospace engineering at Hokkaido University with the goal of making "near-space tourism by balloon" a reality. More than 35 of the company's employees have flown aboard the craft for flight training and data collection.
While outer space is generally considered to be at an altitude exceeding 100 km, the "spectacle of the blue Earth" can be observed from the stratosphere at 25 km high, the company said.
Iwaya has already begun accepting applications from the general public for high-altitude tours, which concluded at the end of August. It is planning to conduct its first commercial flight by March 2024.
Although a four-hour ride will cost 24 million yen ($164,000) per passenger, the company says it has received applications beyond its expectations.
Successful applicants will likely be announced in early October and receive an orientation in November and December.
While space travel is generally the preserve of the super-rich, Iwaya hopes that if its project proves successful, more people will be able to see the Earth from above at a much lower price than rocket-based space travel.
The company has joined hands with travel agencies as part of its efforts to "reduce the cost to around 1 million yen in the future," CEO Iwaya said.
The company will first aim to achieve a manned flight up to an altitude of 12 km before trying to reach its ultimate 25 km goal later this year.
"A bumpy road lies ahead. We will repeat test flights to prove the safety of our operation," the founder said. Prioritizing safety above anything else, the high-altitude technology startup is eager to "popularize space travel," he stressed.