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World View capsule
World View’s Voyager capsule would rise into the stratosphere at the end of a high-altitude balloon, with a parafoil used to aid in its descent. (World View Enterprises illustration)

World View Enterprises’ plan to send tourists from Spaceport Tucson into the stratosphere in a balloon-borne capsule won a $15 million vote of support today from Arizona’s Pima County.

In a 4-1 vote, the county Board of Supervisors approved a plan to build the spaceport for World View’s use by the end of the year. World View is working on a pressurized Voyager capsule that would rise to 100,000 feet beneath a high-altitude balloon and give passengers a leisurely space-like view – all for the price of $75,000 a person.

World View CEO Jane Poynter told GeekWire that today’s vote of support signals that Arizona has joined the likes of Florida, California, New Mexico and Texas on the commercial space frontier. “We’re really seeing an inflection point in this whole space tech area,” she said.

The company already has been testing subscale versions of its flight system at various facilities around Arizona. “Just about every airport in the state has seen us,” said Taber MacCallum, who is World View’s co-founder and chief technology officer as well as Poynter’s husband.

The development plan calls for a full-size mockup of the capsule to be flight-tested in mid-2016. Crewed test flights would start in mid-2017. Commercial tours would begin in late 2017 or early 2018, MacCallum said.

Poynter emphasized that the balloon-borne flight system could be used for uncrewed high-altitude flights as well as the tourist trips.

“Think of using these balloons rather like a satellite that can hover over a location, but you don’t need to bother with the rockets,” she said. The potential applications include weather monitoring, surveillance and scientific experiments. World View has already flown high-altitude experiments for NASA, and is working with commercial partners such as Northrop Grumman as well.

The flight profile for the passenger tours would involve a 90-minute ascent, about two hours of stratospheric sightseeing, and then a 90-minute descent assisted by a steerable parafoil. The 100,000-foot altitude is less than a third of the way to the internationally accepted 62-mile (100-kilometer) boundary of outer space, but it would provide a similar view of the curving Earth under a black sky.

Poynter argued that the World View experience will fill a niche that’s different from rocket-powered space tours. Those trips, contemplated by companies such as Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin, aim to go up to higher altltudes for just a few minutes’ worth of weightnessness and outer-space views. In contrast, World View’s system “allows us to be at altitude for an extended period of time – which, it turns out, is what people want to do when they go to space,” Poynter said.

Today’s go-ahead from the Pima County Board of Supervisors represents an initial step toward setting up the tourist operation. The supervisors voted to invest $15 million, backed by future tax revenue, to build the spaceport. World View would lease the facility from the county over a 20-year term to pay back the investment.

The facility would include a launch pad, headquarters building and manufacturing facility, World View said.

World View was spun off in 2013 from Paragon Space Development Corp., another Tucson-based company that MacCallum and Poynter helped create. MacCallum said the plan to build a “spaceport right outside our front door” was chosen over other proposals from Florida and New Mexico. “It’s really interesting to see how competitive commercial space is,” he said.

World View says it currently employs about 50 people. It expects to grow its workforce to more than 400 in five years. “Jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s what this is all about,” Sharon Bronson, chair of Board of Supervisors, said in a statement issued after today’s vote.

The project entails some risks. In order for World View to fly paying customers, the Federal Aviation Administration will need to issue approvals for the spaceport as well as for the balloon system. And depending on the terms of the deal, delays in flight operations could end up costing either World View or the county – as has been the case for Virgin Galactic and Spaceport America in New Mexico.

Update for 12:30 p.m. PT Jan. 19: The investment figure has been updated from $14.5 million to $15 million to reflect the figures listed in the Board of Supervisors memorandum.

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