Exploring Space on the Cheap

Compared to the space station, balloons seem positively retro, something out of Jules Verne. Even today's sophisticated high-altitude models are little more than helium-filled sacs with gondolas swinging beneath them, rising no more than 20 or 25 miles, barely twice as high as military jets and complete captives of the wind. Yet while ballooning may seem the antithesis of the space age, it is exciting renewed interest as a low-cost alternative to costly orbital labs.

Nowhere was this more evident than last week at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., where several dozen space scientists gathered to consider a...

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