06Oct2019

Let’s Think About Using Hot Air Balloons to Get to Space

The second space race is in full effect. And while well-heeled organizations like SpaceX and Blue Origin often hog the headlines, there are a number of smaller companies looking to make headway in niche areas of the space economy.

A majestic hot air balloon soars under the stars of the Milky Way, over the desert - Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley National Park. Moonlight provides luminosity showing the patterns and shapes of the desert landscape.

The idea is surprisingly old school. This company wants to modernize it.

One of them is Leo Aerospace, which wants to meet the increasing demand for orbital launches with hot air balloons. According to Leo’s website, the company is a “dedicated delivery service for microsatellites” looking to enter what’s known as low Earth orbit (LEO). A Leo ballon would escort a satellite weighing up to 25 kilograms, or around 55 pounds. When the balloon reaches the right altitude, these satellites would use the balloon as a launching pad, rocketing only 11 miles into space.

With 95 percent less atmosphere at these heights, there’s significantly less drag than at Cape Canaveral. Such a launch would require less fuel. “We at Leo believe it should be as easy to put a microsatellite into space as it is to ship a package across the country,” says Leo CEO Dane Rudy in a press statement. “There will be no more need for ridesharing or hitchhiking.”

The concept isn’t a new one. “We found this really elegant solution that was actually tested in a rudimentary way in the 50s by the Air Force, which is launching rockets from an aerostat—a balloon,” Rudy tells TechCrunch. Known as Project Excelsior, the project resulted in Air Force Capt. Joseph Kittinger making three jumps from a balloon gondola in 1959 and 1960, with the highest one coming from a then-record height of over 102,000 feet. Excelsior’s gondola currently sits in the National Museum of the United States Air Force.

“It actually worked really well for what it was designed for. The issue they ran into was that the U.S. shifted toward sending people to the moon—so there just wasn’t a need for that technology in the Apollo program. But the rise in small satellites has created a huge demand tailored to these capabilities,” Rudy says.

There are a few differences between Project Excelsior and what Rudy wants to accomplish with Leo. Chief among them is reusability; Excelsior’s balloons were built to be used once. If Leo wants to be profitable, it needs to get more out of its balloons. “That was one of the big problems we had to solve—the expense of the balloon itself; helium is expensive, and the envelope [i.e. the balloon material] is expensive and fragile,” says Rudy. “How do we make that zero stage, as we call it, reusable?”

The team is using tough nylon as the answer, similar to what conventional hot air balloons use today. Right now, the big problem Leo faces is funding. No matter how cheap space flights can get, they’re still really expensive. The company is hoping to raise $8 million to fund the company over the next two years.

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