Economy & Tech
Dream of Space Travel? One Sapporo Firm Aims to Make It a Reality for Amateur Travelers
Using gas balloons and airtight cabins, Iwaya Giken aims to make space travel possible in the next decade at a price equivalent to that of an ordinary car.
Iwaya Giken Corporation, based in Sapporo, Hokkaido Prefecture, is conducting research and development on space travel using a gas balloon.
In June, the company successfully sent a hamster in an airtight cabin developed by the company to an altitude of 23 km in the stratosphere and brought it back to Earth safely. The company plans to conduct a manned high altitude flight test during fiscal year 2023.
Keisuke Iwaya, the 36-year-old president of the company, says, “I hope that balloon space travel will eventually be possible at a price in the ￥1 million JPY ($7,500 USD) range.”
In the not-too-distant future, space travel may be within reach for amateur travelers.
To the Stratosphere at 25 Km Altitude
Space travel as envisioned by President Iwaya uses the combination of a gas balloon developed by his company that can handle high altitudes and an "airtight cabin" to carry people.
The plastic balloon will be filled with enough helium gas to lift people. Passengers enter the cabin, which can withstand changes in atmospheric pressure, such as in a vacuum environment, and slowly ascend with the buoyancy of the gas to reach the stratosphere at an altitude of about 25 km. After viewing the Earth and outer space below, they will descend slowly back to the ground.
The drop-off point will be analyzed in advance by computer simulation, and the company staff will be able to “go welcome them back.”
Passion to Business
President Iwaya, who studied space engineering at Hokkaido University's Faculty of Engineering, made headlines after graduating from the university. He launched a small balloon device in 2012 and successfully took space photos from an altitude of 30 km. Explaining, Iwaya says, “I started the company out of necessity, and before I realized, it had become a business.”
Iwaya Giken Corporation was established in Fukushima Prefecture, the president's hometown. Headquarters for the company moved to Sapporo in 2020. Currently, the company conducts research and development at the Sapporo R&D Center. Meanwhile, it develops and manufactures cabins and balloons at the Ebetsu Balloon Factory in Ebetsu City, adjacent to Sapporo.
Less Physical Burden
Although it has been only a little more than six years since the company was launched, the speed of development has been rapid. Prior to its June 2022 launch experiment with a hamster, the company successfully launched tropical fish to a maximum altitude of 28 km in June 2018 and returned the fish safely to Earth.
In May 2021, an unmanned cabin was successfully launched at a maximum altitude of 25 km. Then in February of 2022, the company launched a 19-meter unmanned balloon, and also conducted a low-altitude manned flight test at 30 meters, both successfully.
A 25-meter unmanned balloon was successfully launched in March 2022. The company has been building a track record of achievement.
In August and September of 2022, Iwaya Giken plans to conduct a medium-altitude flight test at an altitude of 2 to 4 km. They are targeting a high-altitude manned flight test at an altitude of 25 km by the 2023 fiscal year.
Efficiency of Balloon Travel
President Iwaya explained the advantages of balloons, saying: “When you go into space by rocket, it takes a long time to prepare for the launch and there is a heavy physical burden. With a balloon, there is no burden, and launch preparations can be done in about an hour and a half."
A one-person cabin has already been completed. The design for a two-person cabin is almost identical, and a six-person cabin is under development with the goal of completion in four to five years.
The initial cost for the balloon space travel is expected to be in the range of ￥10 million JPY ($75,000 USD) per person. “However,” he said, “if we can build a 20-passenger cabin, it will be possible to provide space travel at a price of ￥1 million JPY ($7,500 USD) per person.”
If space travel, a dream for many people, becomes possible at a price equivalent to that of an ordinary car, 10 years is not a long time to wait.
Ahead of Other Countries
President Iwaya is passionate about balloon space travel, but he is not particular about the timing of his own flight. “It doesn't matter when,” he laughed.
What he enjoys the most is the development work. “I value 'doing what I can to the best of my ability,'” he says. “Irregular situations are bound to occur, so I try to anticipate every conceivable problem and work to solve them. The interesting thing is that we can feed back all our successes and failures to the development process.”
There are companies in the United States and Spain that are developing in the same field. But, "We have not heard that they have progressed to the experimental stage at this point," said one of the company's executives.
Iwaya Giken is far ahead of other companies in the world, but they need development personnel and funds to commercialize the technology.
"In recent years, there has been an active trend in Japan to fund dreams of space travel, and we are grateful for that,” said President Iwaya. “We want to move forward steadily while showing the results of our development.”
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(Read the report in Japanese at this link.)
Author: Takahiro Sakamoto
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