The space race just got a new entrant. France’s Zephalto is offering passengers the chance to travel to the stratosphere in a balloon, starting at €120,000 ($132,000) per person in 2025.
“I partnered with the French space agency, and we worked on the concept of the balloon together,” says Zephalto founder and aerospace engineer Vincent Farret d’Astiès.
He tells Bloomberg that he’s planning on 60 flights a year, with just six passengers on board each flight. The company aims to provide an experience that brings the best bits of French hospitality—fine food, wine and design—to the edges of space for those who can afford the six-figure ticket.
Balloons filled with helium or hydrogen will depart from France with two pilots on board and rise 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) into the stratosphere for 1 1/2 hours. Once at peak altitude, which is about three times higher than for a commercial airliner, the balloon will stay for three hours, giving guests a chance to take in views previously seen only by astronauts. The descent will take a further hour and a half, for a six-hour round trip.
“We choose 25 kilometers high because it’s the altitude where you are in the darkness of space, with 98% of the atmosphere below you, so you can enjoy the curvature of the Earth in the blue line. You’re in the darkness of space, but without the zero gravity experience,” says Farret d’Astiès.
NASA says outer space officially begins 50 miles above the Earth. Other international bodies put it at 62 miles (100 km) at what’s known as the Kármán Line.
The Consumer Space Race
Zephalto is a new European entrant in the commercial space race, but it’s not the only space balloon in the game. Florida-based Space Perspectives is offering voyages aboard its Neptune One vessel, going a little higher (19 miles) for a little less money: $125,000. Flights will begin in 2024.
Using rockets—and offering an option to experience weightlessness—both Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Blue Origin LLC have launched civilian space flights that saw Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos suit up alongside space tourists for the flights. Blue Origin is aiming to restart its voyages by the end of this year since an unmanned rocket crashed in 2022.
On Monday, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was forced to delay its next-generation Starship rocket 10 minutes before liftoff; plans are to eventually fly tourists around the moon.
Unlike its American competitor, Zephalto will land on the ground not in the sea, and the company highlights its luxury design. Compared to rockets, space balloon options are for much more serene, less risky tourism, and anyone can go without prior training; if you’re fit to travel on a commercial airline, you’re fit to fly on this space balloon.
Balloons capable of reaching the stratosphere have been used by scientists and weather researchers since the 1930s. The crewed tourism aspect is the innovation. CNES (Centre national d’études spatiales, France’s space agency) has been sending balloons up for more than 60 years.
Joseph Dirand, a French designer of Balmain and Givenchy stores in Paris as well as such chic restaurants as Loulou and Monsieur Bleu, has been tapped to create the interiors. Dirand is known for his minimalist design style, which won’t distract passengers from the most important thing: views of the Earth.
“Design is about shaping experiences, and this experience will shape people’s lives,” says Dirand. “I hope that our guests will return to Earth with new perspectives towards our precious planet, its beauty and how to protect it better.”
The on-board experience will be tailored for individual customer preferences, with particular attention paid to food. Zephalto is striving to offer Michelin-star quality cuisine to guests, though the company declined to name any potential chef-partners. And while Farret d’Astiès wants people to savor the experience and be focused in the moment, Wi-Fi will be available so they can show the experience to friends and family back on Earth.
Wrapped into the fare, too: an option to speak with a psychologist before the flight. Seeing Earth from above can be challenging, says Farret d’Astiès.
“You need psychological preparation. We know from the 600 people who have went above this altitude that seeing Earth in the darkness is an experience that can be emotional,” he explains, citing the overview effect. The well-documented phenomenon of seeing the Earth from space can have a powerful effect on perspective.
Star Trek’s William Shatner, who traveled with Blue Origin in October 2021, said that looking down at Earth gave him the strongest feelings of grief he’d ever experienced.
Three test flights have been carried out by Zephalto with pilots on board, but none has yet reached the full altitude of 25 kilometers. Farret d’Astiès says a flight later this year should accomplish this.
He’s confident that it will succeed because the French space agency has long worked with high-altitude balloons. When all tests are passed, the balloon will earn EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) certification as a commercial airliner.
While certification will allow the balloons to land anywhere in Europe, the initial flights will take off and land on French soil.
It’s a long-held dream of Zephalto’s founder, who says his family history is tied to balloon flight. His great-great-great-grandfather escaped Paris on a balloon in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. Unlike his ancestor, though, Farret d’Astiès intends to get a little closer to the stars.