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SPACE balloon flights cannot be launched from Singapore owing to safety and operational concerns, the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has clarified, even as local firm IN.Genius continues to work towards sending a Singaporean into near-space this year.
The CAAS said in a statement on Friday: "Given the high density of air traffic in our skies and of the populace, space balloon flights cannot be launched from Singapore due to safety risks to aircraft in the Singapore Flight Information Region, as well as to lives and property on the ground."
It was a point it had relayed to IN.Genius back in late 2013, it said.
When contacted by The Business Times, the company's founder and director Lim Seng said that the first manned flight, piloted by a Singaporean, will now take place out of Alice Springs in Australia in April or May - a course of action that was decided on a few months ago.
Mr Lim had initially been keen to launch the flight from Singapore on National Day this year, when Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence.
Meanwhile, an unmanned test flight with laboratory rats will be carried out in Hyderabad, India later this month.
Mr Lim, stressing that he recognised that Singapore was a small country with congested air space, said: "We understand (CAAS') stance. It is not conflicting with our mission. Our job is to convince the safety authorities of Singapore that it is safe enough to fly here. We hope to be able to fly out of Singapore one day."
But CAAS has explained that space balloons, with their limited steering capability and slow speeds, would pose a safety risk to other aircraft, especially if the balloons deviate from their flight path.
Ensuring a safety buffer would require the closure of airspace in the affected area for "prolonged periods", which could disrupt hundreds of commercial flights and affect hundreds of thousands of passengers.
There is also the matter of the 500 kg of ballast - heavy materials used to lend stability - which would have to be ejected to operate the balloon. These could endanger people and property on the ground, said CAAS.
Space balloon projects that have so far gotten airborne have typically been launched from remote areas, away from civilian air traffic and people. The 2012 Red Bull Stratos mission, in which skydiver Felix Baumgartner pulled off a 128,000-foot free fall from the stratosphere, was launched from a desert in New Mexico in USA.
The Singaporean who will pilot IN.Genius' first manned flight has been selected from 12 candidates and singled out from a list of more than 150 applicants, which included Mr Lim's teenage daughter. The winning candidate will be revealed on Saturday.
He declined to disclose the cost of the privately-funded project, which is backed by himself and two partners, though earlier media reports have put the price tag in the region of millions.
IN.Genius ultimately hopes to get the space capsule, powered by a helium balloon, to a height of 20km above sea-level; down the road, he plans to develop space balloon flights into a full-fledged space-tourism venture, and even operate a "space hotel".
Other groups trying to get space-tourism ventures off the ground include Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic - which suffered a high-profile crash in October, killing a test pilot - and Barcelona-based inbloon.
Local travel agency Country Holidays is the Singapore-based representative for inbloon, which is looking to send adventurous travellers 36km up in a space balloon by late this year or early next year. Each five-hour ride would cost some 110,000 euros (S$173,425) per person.
Country Holidays has had enquiries, but hasn't taken bookings yet as the launch date is still up in the air.
The agency's spokeswoman said the experience has been touted as a smooth ride, which could appeal to tourists of different ages.
"You can even bring a Michelin-starred chef (to cook for you) on this ride," she said.