Raphaël Domjan knows what it’s like to have people question your sanity. In September 2010, he set sail from Monaco aiming to circumnavigate the globe in a solar-powered boat in a year and a half. Boat builders and skippers advised him against it in the strongest possible terms. It was a hopeless task, they said; the flimsy trimaran and its 5,780 square feet of solar panels wouldn’t survive more than two days on the high seas. “Their doubts only gave me more energy,” Domjan says. “If everyone assumes a project is going to succeed one way or another, then it
can’t be that much of a challenge.”
PlanetSolar, as the project was dubbed, turned out to be more than challenge enough for Domjan. Sixty-knot winds pushed man and boat to the brink. Illness and technical difficulties plagued the four-man crew on board. In the Gulf of Aden, they even needed military protection from pirates.
But all the setbacks only motivated Domjan even more: “One night when we were sailing across the Pacific, I looked up at the stars and decided that if this mission was successful, I would have a crack at a solar-powered flight to the stratosphere. I dreamed of also being able to see the stars by day.”
By the time the PlanetSolar crew sailed back into Monaco in May 2012 to a jubilant reception by thousands of people, Domjan was already focusing on his next project: The boatyard would become a hangar and PlanetSolar would become SolarStratos. Domjan had just circumnavigated the globe using the energy of the sun—now he wanted to use that same energy to fly to the edge of space.
On a fertile plain amid farmland and small villages near Lake Neuchatel in Switzerland sits the Payerne Air Base. Its hangar is home to about 20 SolarStratos team members, 30 international partners and the sun-powered plane that holds the key to the mission. At first glance, the 28-foot two-seater unveiled in December 2016 looks like a conventional glider, albeit one with a massive 81.7-foot wingspan covered in 237 square feet of solar panels. Those will charge the 20 kWh lithium-ion batteries that in turn will drive the propeller via a 32 kW electric motor.
The project’s success hinges on the efficiency of the propulsion generated by that motor and its reliability at temperatures as low as 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. But equally important is weight, which must be kept drastically low for Domjan and his team to have a shot.
To that end, all of the components must be lightweight. The fuselage itself is made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. They’ve even done away with a pressurized cabin to keep the overall weight down to 992 pounds. As a result, Domjan will need to wear a space suit—the first solar-powered space suit in the world—and lose 22 pounds. “At least,” he says, though looking at him it’s hard to see where. “Every gram costs you three feet of altitude.”
This year, in addition to extensive equipment checks, pressure-chamber tests and simulator training, there are plans for several short test flights, designed both to collect vital data and set some records in the process. Domjan first wants to break the solar-plane altitude record of 29,862 feet alongside his co-pilot, fellow Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard, who set the mark last July while circling the globe in his own Solar Impulse plane. Farther down the line he has plans for a parachute jump—the first solar-powered jump, so to speak. That too would be a record.
The plan is to take on the stratosphere no later than 2019. By then Domjan should be able to ascend to an altitude of around 82,000 feet. Flight time will be about five and a half hours: two and a half hours for the ascent, 15 minutes in the stratosphere and three hours to come back down to Earth.
Though the germ of Domjan’s space shot began on that long, arduous boat voyage, its origins date back earlier, to a trip the 45-year-old took to Iceland in 2004. He came across a lake that just 11 years earlier had been a solid glacier.
“I realized how dramatic climate change is, and not just from the pages of a newspaper,” he says. “And I understood that just bringing it to people’s attention and warning them about it wasn’t enough. The message isn’t: ‘Hey people, we’ve got a problem and we have to stop using fossil fuels.’ The message is: ‘We have a dream and we have the technology to make it come true. We can stay optimistic!’”
A fan of the adventure stories of Jules Verne as a child, Domjan worked in search and rescue early in his career before deciding to become an explorer. Following the 2012 circumnavigation, he headed north in 2015 to complete a solar-powered kayak crossing of the Northwest Passage to test solar technology in extreme conditions. Though what he does indicates otherwise, he abstains from using the term “adventurer” to describe his line of work. Rather he sees himself as a campaigner using his adventures as a way to reach a wider audience.
“Doing something that nobody has done before sends a signal,” he says. “Being the first to do something sends out a strong message that reaches everyone: politicians, entrepreneurs, the general public.”
While there are now thousands of electric cars on the road, there is not yet a single electric plane in the air, much less a solar-powered one, which means all the less experience for the SolarStratos designers to fall back on. And there’s no one to say how it might fly at 82,000 feet—beyond the clouds and away from any turbulence but at only 5 percent of the normal air pressure.
Domjan is not fazed by any of this. He has too much time in the air for that. He was flying gliders by the age of 15, got his pilot’s license at 17 and has flown a number of aircraft and helicopters since then, even electric ones. “It’s unusual how quiet it is at takeoff because normally planes shudder and make noise,” he says. “But as soon as you’re up in the air, an electric airplane flies like any other.”
If anything, he worries about the 66-pound space suit that limits his movement in the cockpit and makes all the difference between life and death at 82,000 feet. “If the space suit’s systems fail in the stratosphere,” he says, “blood blisters will form and I’ll be dead within seconds.”
Mercifully, there’s still a bit of runway before he is confronted with that possibility in flight. Helping him sleep at night is the fact that the suit construction is being handled by the same company that outfitted Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first human in outer space.
“Everyone involved is doing everything they can to make this as safe as possible,” he says. “And if there was no risk at all, then we could hardly talk of this as being an adventure.” If everything goes according to plan and the mission is a success, he wants to commercialize the project, take on staff and “do something for both the solar industry and the environment.” He also contemplates passenger flights and solar-powered drones, which are currently being designed by large IT firms to replace satellites.
But that’s still several years—and one giant leap—away. First comes time in the simulator, and more time spent fund-raising (he’s already secured $5 million but needs another $5 million to assure the mission’s success). And once he sees the stars twinkling in the cold light of day at 82,000 feet, who is to say what ideas might come to him next?