Imagine having the chance to vacation in space: you pack your bags, launch into the skies and find yourself floating among a sea of stars.
Now imagine having an unexpected allergic reaction. Suddenly you’re hundreds of miles above the Earth, wheezing, itching, puffy eyes, and no medicine in sight.
“Are you going to wait two months for the next SpaceX rocket to deliver Benadryl to you? asks Saharnaz Safari.
“No, you need it now.”
This is part of the speech given by Safari at the opening of what is billed as Canada’s first rocket factory. As members of a husband-wife team, Safari and Sohrab Haghighat spoke to CBC News at their SpaceRyde company headquarters just north of Toronto in Vaughan, Ontario, alongside the first Canadian astronaut to live aboard the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield.
Their goal: to make history as the first orbital rocket to be launched from a balloon, which means cost-effective, on-demand access to space. Think of a private Uber-like service for freight “from the Earth to the Moon and anywhere in between,” they say.
Safari and Haghighat envision bringing the cargo to the edge of space by balloon, then releasing it, igniting a rocket, and using the power of miniature computers to control where it goes in space.
An “elegant idea”, says Hadfield
At a price of $250,000 per trip, that’s a fraction of the cost of what’s currently on offer for a company or entity looking to send satellites into space or ferry cargo to the moon, Safari says. . The competitor, Elon Musk’s SpaceX, is charging more than $1.1 million in comparison, she says.
It’s an “elegant idea,” says Hadfield, who says getting to space now has been accomplished through the “raw power” of burning massive amounts of fossil fuels.
“It’s a physical problem,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference. “To enter orbit, you have to travel eight kilometers per second. The more you slow down, the more you fall through the air; the faster you ride, the faster you exit to a higher orbit.
“But there’s too much friction. So you have to get high above the air and then you have to go fast enough to stay up there.”
Applications here on Earth
This is where balloons come in.
But the technology isn’t just handy for space travelers who might have forgotten something important on Earth, Hadfield says. It also has the potential to facilitate sending satellites into low orbit to help send back valuable information about the health and temperature of the oceans and the planet as a whole, he says.
Jason Wood, executive director of space exploration and space industry policy at the Canadian Space Agency, also imagines other uses.
“Think of how it could be helpful in remote or northern communities here in Canada to provide sustainable food sources or another example is healthcare, in terms of remote medicine.”
Wood says SpaceRyde is part of a broader shift towards more and more commercial players providing access to space. Some estimates put the industry at $1 trillion a year by 2040, he says.
As for Safari and Haghighat, the two met in Waterloo, Ontario. during graduate studies.
“That’s where we got to know each other, fell in love and eventually got married,” he told CBC News.
The couple, who have been married for almost 14 years, are planning their first launch in 2023.
The following year, they aim for the moon.