The $164,000 space balloon flight preparing to rise from Saudi Arabia

Spanish company Halo Space unveils capsule design for luxury four-hour flight to see the sunrise

A rare and emotional view of the sunrise from high above the Earth is Halo Space's key selling point. Photo: Halo Space
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A balloon flight into space to see an awe-inspiring sunrise from high above the Earth will be tested in Saudi Arabia this summer.

The uncrewed test is part of preparations to offer $164,000 passenger flights from 2026 – with Saudi Arabia pencilled in as one of four commercial launch sites.

Passengers will take off before dawn for a luxury four-hour trip offering fine dining in the stratosphere and a gentle return to Earth.

Halo Space, the Spanish company behind the plans, is in talks with Saudi regulators as it plans to set up a base in the kingdom to serve wealthy Gulf space tourists.

Saudi Arabia also offers fine weather that guarantees a stunning view of the sunrise, Halo's chief executive Carlos Mira told The National.

An "overview effect" of seeing the Earth in the cosmos, described by astronauts as a deeply moving experience, is Halo's main selling point.

"What we are offering is the perspective," Mr Mira said. "If we have it overcast with clouds, we are killing it."

Halo is on Thursday unveiling a design for the capsule, known as Aurora, that will take eight passengers and a pilot to the edge of space.

Moroccan-born luxury car designer Frank Stephenson was handed the job of making the experience "desirable and emotional".

There will be tailored menus and panoramic windows in what is envisaged as a high-end "commercial plane atmosphere".

High lifestyle

At only 35km high, there is no weightlessness and no need for spacesuits – design concepts show stylish passengers wearing suits and high heels.

"These are individuals, probably, who enjoy a pretty high lifestyle. They would not go in cattle class on the plane," said Mr Stephenson.

"They would probably fly first class, so you have to provide that sort of feeling at the expense of not going overboard with weight."

Five tests have taken place already, with the sixth, taking place 300km from Riyadh in June, set to bring all the components together.

Once a Saudi launch site is up and running, it will run flights between October and April – the Arabian summer is deemed too hot.

A further three launch stations are planned in the US, Spain and Australia, which likewise offer sunny weather and sparsely populated areas.

Halo's plan is for 100 flights a year by 2030, with a few spots earmarked for deserving guests who cannot afford a $164,000 ticket.

Bookings will begin about a year before the first flight, after Halo received some friendly advice from Virgin Galactic not to start a waiting list too early.

"In history only 650 people have enjoyed the overview effect. We are bringing this to thousands of people," Mr Mira said.

Safety promise

Asked for reassurance that this is not the next OceanGate Expeditions – the company behind the doomed Titanic submersible dive – Mr Mira said he would be happy to go on the first flight.

The helium or hydrogen-powered balloon is a "very safe climbing machine" that flies at a gentle 20kph and has no engine that can fail, he says.

The Aurora capsule is 5m wide and 3.5m tall, made of an aluminium alloy and is estimated to weigh 3,500kg at take-off.

Talks on a safety certificate are continuing with US regulators at the Federal Aviation Commission, with several Saudi ministries also involved.

A Halo trip would last for several hours, seen as a selling point compared to Jeff Bezos's 10-minute, up-and-down Blue Origin flight.

Mr Mira also sees Halo as filling a niche for space tourism that is high-end but still more accessible than trips into orbit with Elon Musk's SpaceX.

Another plus is that a balloon flight does not involve emissions from burning rocket fuel, although hydrogen and helium undoubtedly add to the cost.

The gas is released from the balloon when it is time to come home, before the capsule descends and a parachute is opened to ensure a soft landing.

The flight would be part of a week-long experience in which people camp at the launch site and familiarise themselves with the capsule before taking off.

A rival in Florida, Space Perspective, is also working on balloon flights, with commercial flights planned from 2025.

Two Spanish start-ups took Halo's founders to court claiming it had stolen their ideas. Halo rejects the allegations.

Halo's pilots will be recruited with experience as skydivers and parachutists. There will, initially at least, be a psychologist on board. The capsule has a bathroom.

Once flights are up and running, Halo is keen to explore novelty options such as taking off in Spain and landing in Saudi Arabia, or a faster descent for more adventurous guests.

"One you reach the pinnacle of one thing, you want to reach the next pinnacle," Mr Stephenson said.

Updated: April 11, 2024, 8:00 AM