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Balloons to the edge of space – when?
Among the commercial ventures currently exploring human spaceflight is a small industry dedicated to using balloons instead of rockets. Two companies, US-based World View enterprises and Spain-based Zero2Infinity are developing balloon-based services that will take passengers to an altitude of around 36 km. That's short of the 100 km line that defines actual spaceflight, but is high enough to show passengers the curvature of the earth and a new perspective on the planet we all call home.
Ballooning, the companies point out, is already a part of high altitude history. In 1931 Auguste Piccard and Paul Kipfer reached the stratosphere in a balloon, and balloons were used to set altitude skydiving records, most recently Alan Eustace's 41-km jump in 2014.
Balloons do not require the explosive power of a rocket launch, but do require helium, a resource that is becoming more and more scarce. They also require regulatory approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration before beginning flights in the United States, and similar approval from other aviation officials in other countries. Approval from the FAA would take the form of a commercial space transportation license or experimental permit. As of February 2017, only 15 commercial launch licenses are active - none for ballooning ventures.
When will a commercial ballooning venture receive approval to begin passenger flights to the stratosphere?
This question will resolve as positive when a credible news report or release issued by a national aviation agency announces regulatory approval for any commercial ballooning venture, in the form of a commercial space transportation license or permit, to conduct passenger flights into the stratosphere (above 15 km).
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