ISS is photographed by Expedition 66 crew
ISS is photographed by Expedition 66 crew member from a Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft. Reuters / ROSCOSMOS


  • Iwaya Giken says stratospheric balloon rides are "safe, economical and gentle" for people
  • The company aims to make space travel more reachable for everyone
  • A ballon flight would cost around 24 million yen (£149,198)

Are you enthusiastic about taking a stratospheric balloon ride and getting an opportunity to have an unobstructed view of outer space? A Japanese startup—Iwaya Giken, plans to start commercial balloon flights later this year. This comes after launches by Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin.

About Iwaya Giken

The startup, Iwaya Giken is a "passenger technology development company that designs, develops, and manufactures high-altitude gas balloons and airtight cabins for travel, aiming to realise space sightseeing flights by balloons," according to the website. The company started its operation in April 2016, and is based in Sapporo, whereas its research institute is in Fukushima.

Speaking about the stratospheric balloon flights on Tuesday, Keisuke Iwaya CEO of Iwaya Giken said, "It's safe, economical and gentle for people. The idea is to make space tourism for everyone." He added that he wants to "democratise space."

How balloon flights came into being

The CEO stated that he has been working on the project for a decade. When Iwaya was a student at the Department of Mechanical and Intellectual Engineering, Hokkaido University in 2010, he was majoring in aerospace engineering and learning about rockets. He always wanted to be in the space business. In 2011, when he started researching and developing balloons, he found that the feasibility of the space business lay in balloons. Then, he went on to establish Iwaya Giken.

What is a balloon capsule?

Iwaya Giken has developed an airtight two-seat balloon, capable of going up to an altitude of 25 kilometers (15 miles). This will give the passengers a clear view of the curve of the Earth. The balloon will take its passengers to the middle of the stratosphere, where it will fly higher than a jet plane and provide an unobstructed view of outer space.

How will the balloon work?

The Iwaya Giken balloon will be lifted by helium that can be largely reused, company officials said adding that it is unlike a rocket or a hot air balloon. It can carry two people and would take off from a balloon port in Hokkaido. It will rise for two hours to as high as 25 km and remain in the position for an hour before an hour-long descent. The balloon flights will safely stay above Japanese territory or airspace. The first trip is planned by the company as early as later this year.

Specifications of the balloon flight

Iwaya Giken said that the balloon flight is nothing but a drum-shaped plastic cabin. It is 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in diameter with several large windows for the people travelling in it to view the space above and the Earth below.

Cost of stratospheric balloon flight

The company's commercial space viewing balloon flights also aim to bring down the cost by leaps and bounds. Iwaya added that passengers do not need to be billionaires or go through training to fly in their balloons. Initially, a flight would cost around 24 million yen (£149,198). Iwaya Giken has collaborated with Japanese travel agency JTB Corporation for the balloon flight project.

The company noted that helium gas costs about 5000 yen (around £31) for a one-kilogram object to float. "If the weight is about 60kg, the helium gas cost will be 300,000 yen (£185)," the company stated adding that even if a person is 1kg or 2kg lighter, it can reduce the cost of the flight.

Iwaya Giken aims is to make space travel more reachable. Applications for a space viewing ride opened Tuesday and will continue through the end of August. The first five passengers selected will be announced in October, said company officials. After the announcement, flights will approximately be a week apart, depending on the weather conditions.

Test flights

The startup remarked that they conducted their first manned test flight in February 2022 that was successful. In May of the same year, they launched an unmanned balloon equipped with a wireless device that flew to an altitude of 30 kms (about 18.64 miles) and successfully verified communication with the ground. Manned test flights were repeated with mooring ropes in June, July and August. Iwaya Giken launched free flight tests without mooring ropes in September 2022 that was a success.

Talking about safety of the flights, Iwaya said, "We confirmed that sufficient safety was ensured, and in November, we succeeded in a manned flight to 102.3 metres, which exceeds the target altitude of 100 metres."

Big competitors in commercial space flight

Unlike Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Blue Origin and other players, stratospheric balloons don't go close to space, said Lars Kalnajs, a research scientist at the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. He added that most balloons will travel 30 to 40 kilometres (about 19 to 25 miles) high, which falls short of the internationally recognised boundary for space — the "Karman Line" — set at 100 kilometres above sea level.

Rockets are more expensive than balloon flights

The Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) launched its first paying visitors to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the SpaceX Dragon Resilience, in April 2022 for a cost of what is believed to have been at least $55 million (£45 million) per person, reported Quartz. Axiom is a company founded by a former NASA official and a long-time NASA contractor.

The Falcon 9 rocket launch by SpaceX cost $62 million (around £52 million) in 2016, according to Musk. SpaceX director of vehicle integration Christopher Couluris said that the company managed to bring the launch cost down to about $28 million (£23 million) by reusing the Falcon 9 rockets in 2020, CNBC reported.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic charges $450,000 (£373 million) with a $150,000 (£124 million) deposit for a 90-minute sub-orbital trip, according to TechCrunch.

Bezos' Blue Origin hasn't revealed price information for its flights. The ticket price is customised according to the needs of individual passengers based on a variety of factors, said industry insiders According to them, passengers say they have paid anything between zero to nearly $30 million (around £25 million).