Japanese company to sell balloon rides into space

TOKYO, Japan: Japanese startup Iwaya Giken has announced that it will launch commercial space viewing balloon flights at altitudes where the curve of the Earth can be clearly viewed.

The company’s CEO, Keisuke Iwaya, told reporters that passengers do not need to be billionaires, go through intense training or have the language skills needed to fly in a rocket.

"It is safe, economical and gentle for people. The idea is to make space tourism for everyone," he said, adding he wants to "democratize space," as quoted by the Associated Press.

The company, based in Sapporo in northern Japan, has been working on the project since 2012 and has developed an airtight two-seat cabin and a balloon capable of rising up to an altitude of 25 kilometers (15 miles).

It is also working with major Japanese travel agency JTB Corp., which announced plans to collaborate in distributing the technology when the company is ready.

A flight would initially cost some $180,000, and will later be brought down to tens of thousands of dollars, Iwaya said.

As Japanese space ventures have fallen behind US companies, such as SpaceX, Iwaya said his goal is to make space travel more accessible and affordable.

Unlike a rocket or a hot air balloon, Iwaya Giken’s space balloons will be lifted by helium that can be largely reused, and flights will safely stay above Japanese territory or airspace. The first trip is planned as early as later this year.

Applications for a space viewing ride opened this week and will continue until the end of August.