Before sun rise, eight Explorers and a Pilot climb aboard the Neptune Capsule, recline in the plush seats and lift off into the predawn sky. Neptune ascends for two hours to over three times higher than a commercial airliner flies while the sky is still dark, and stars are visible like you’ve never before seen them. As Neptune glides along the edge of space, the sun slowly rises over the curved limb of Earth, scattering rainbow colors of light across the planet and illuminating the thin, bright blue line of our atmosphere. And the sky remains black, completely inky black. This view of Earth in the void of space has transfixed astronauts since the dawn of the space age. Reluctantly, the Explorers and Pilot prepare to leave space to return to Earth. Neptune gently descends under the balloon, and two hours later splashes down, where a ship retrieves the capsule, balloon and Explorers.
I would be on the ground, having a very terrestrial heart attack, but Jim was very interested in space exploration. So he'd be up there, chatting it up with his fellow travelers. Even at $125K - the rumored price - I like to think I'd be happy that he got to go up, up and away. (IRL, I probably wouldn't have been quite so thrilled about this enterprise.)
Jim was a space buff. He enjoyed reading about it, studying the physics, the history. Not so much the astronauts - although he liked The Right Stuff - but the science and the scientists behind it. Decades ago, at the Fleet Science Center in San Diego, we got to take fake flight on an IMAX-ish space shuttle. Jim loved it, peering over the edge and looking down into space. Me? I was having an anxiety attack. (I have no fear of flying, but an awful fear of heights. Things like this just wig me out.) Years later, we did another simulated space flight at the Boston Science Museum. I mostly kept my eyes shut.
One of Jim's dying wishes was to have his ashes sent into space, a wish that I was able to accommodate. Eight months after Jim's death, a thimble-full of his ashes went rocketing out there. Jim got his ride, so mission accomplished. And the ashes that went on his space shot are sitting in a little Connemara marble urn on my mantel.
"We're committed to fundamentally changing the way people have access to space -- both to perform much-needed research to benefit life on Earth and to affect how we view and connect with our planet," said Space Perspective founder and co-CEO Jane Poynter in a release. (Source: CNN)Poynter and her partners are veterans of Biosphere 2, where they spent two years. (I don't know much about Biosphere 2, other than what I read in T.C. Boyle's novel The Terranauts, which was based (loosely) on it. A fun read.)
The capsule is five meters in diameter, while the polyethylene balloon above has a 100-meter diameter when fully inflated, about the length of a football field.By my calculations, that five meter diameter should allow for social distancing, if we're still in masked mode when the Neptune starts boarding passengers. Of course, if we're still pandemic-ing, I don't suppose there will be eight folks who want to sit around in an enclosed capsule for six hours.
The lavatory, it claims, is "the loo with the best view in the known universe," and is located in the center of the capsule in the splashdown cone.Just reading about this gives me the willies. One time, Jim and I were having a drink at the bar on the top of a really tall building in Chicago. (I can't remember whether it was the Hancock or the Sears. Anyway, it was right up there.) They tried to seat us next to the window, but I wasn't having any of that. Smack dab in the middle, please and thank you. Before we left, I had to use "the loo", and when I walked in, there was a big old floor-to-ceiling window I had to walk along the narrow path to the toilets. Yikes!
Anyway, who knows is the Neptune will ever slip the surly bonds of earth with passengers aboard. I do know that I won't be one of them. But it does look kind of cool, and I think it will make a great Christmas tree ornament. I'll hang it in a prominent place and think of Jim. Wish you were here. Or there.