From Andalusia to space: a zero-emissions odyssey

Spanish company Zero 2 Infinity will launch its stratosphere travel program in 2021, when it promises to take tourists 32 kilometers above the surface of the Earth in a specially designed balloon

The Iberian peninsula at night
The Iberian peninsula at nightNASA

Trips to the stratosphere from Andalusia will be on the cards from 2021, thanks to Zero 2 Infinity, a Spanish company that has launched its own space tourism initiative to rival the three other major players in this niche travel market.

This kind of travel is made possible by three projected launch bases or stratoports spread across the globe. One will be in Neom in Saudi Arabia, another in Baja California in Mexico and the third in Jaén, Spain, each of which will cost between €10 million and €12 million.

Space tourism is now on the verge of becoming a reality. The company SpaceX, owned by the technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, plans to have the first civilan in space this year. Blue Origin, owned by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, made its twelfth test flight in December and Virgin Galactic, part of the Richard Branson Virgin empire, already has reservations for 600 wannabe-space tourists, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop idol Justin Bieber. All three companies offer 10-20 minute trips in rockets that travel 100 kilometers into the unknown. The trips may be brief but they do require a certain level of physical fitness.

A balloon owned by the Spanish company Zero 2 Infinity.
A balloon owned by the Spanish company Zero 2 Infinity.

By contrast, Zero 2 Infinity makes it clear that it intends to offer a more modest experience that will simultaneously be more environmentally friendly. Rather than a rocket, passengers will travel in a pressurized cabin or pod, propelled by a balloon fuelled by helium gas, and it will remain in “Near Space” which is higher than planes fly but below the altitude of satellites. The advantage of Zero 2 Infinity’s excursions is that there is no carbon footprint.

While the trip may be longer than the other space flights on offer, no extensive training is needed. In fact, passengers will feel much the same as they do on a normal flight. “The ascent lasts two and a half hours and the descent, an hour and a half, says Kemel Kharbachi, founder of Agora Next Tourism Tech Innovation Hub, an accelerator of technological initiatives related to smart tourism. “As there is nothing abrupt about it, it’s the kind of tourism anyone can enjoy. And while the landing is totally measured by the technicians, the balloon can move from the take-off point by 30 to 50 kilometers, but we are fully prepared to intercept the landings.”

The edge of the world

The actual height reached will be 36 kilometers compared to the 100 kilometers reached by the company’s rivals. Two crew members will accompany four space tourists on each expedition, with 40 technicians controlling the proceedings from the ground. “You can see the curve of the blue earth melting into the blackness of space,” says Kharbachi.

No preparation or astronaut gear is necessary. Instead, passengers will wear overalls similar to those of a race car driver. But they do have to accept a certain level of discomfort: on the initial trips, there will be no catering or toilets, although Kharbachi plans to work on this for future flights.

The technology for Zero 2 Infinity’s tourist space program has been developed by the company’s founder and CEO, José Mariano López-Urdiales, an aerospace engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

You can see the curve of the blue earth melting into the blackness of space
Kemel Kharbachi, Agora Next Tourism Tech Innovation Hub

Although the flight will last just four hours, the complete experience lasts two days. When tourists arrive at the nearest international airport, they will be transferred by the company to the stratoport by helicopter where they will receive a short course from specialized instructors. “It is an immersive [training] experience that gives them a taste of what they will encounter during the flight, but the trip can be made by everyone,” says Kharbachi.

While at the base, each passenger can be accompanied by up to four friends of family members who will be provided with accommodation and have access to a wide range of amenities as well as being able to watch the passenger’s training course. Other companies involved in developing technological solutions also work at the base, adding to the companions’ own experience.

The first balloon flight

If everything goes according to plan, Zero 2 Infinity’s stratosphere balloon flights will be launched by professional mountaineer Raha Moharrak, the first Saudi woman to reach the top of Everest. She will take off from the futuristic Saudi Arabian mega-city of Neom – the name Neom comes from the Greek word neos, which means “new”, and the Arabic word mustaqbal, meaning “future” – which, when it is finished around 2030, will sprawl across 26,000 square kilometers and be a hub for low-emission technology firms.

Zero 2 Infinity will charge €125,000 for the entire package, significantly less than its rivals which are charging upwards of € 220,000. “The 2021 tourists will have to have plenty of economic clout, but as both the technology and the program evolve, in five or 10 years we want this type of trip to become something like the “all-inclusive” packages to the Caribbean,” says Kharbachi.

Currently, trips can only be booked directly with the company, but it will soon be available through travel agencies specializing in adventure tourism.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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