By Eric Swedlund –
Tucson’s World View Enterprises completed a scaled test of its commercial spaceflight balloon this summer, setting a world record by taking its vehicle to the edge of space.
The five-hour milestone test flight validated the full flight profile of the spaceflight system, working with a 10 percent scale model. The flight launched from Roswell International Air Center in New Mexico on June 18.
“It was a very exciting day for us to have accomplished this test flight because it was the first time we put all the pieces together,” said Jane Poynter, CEO of World View. “This was an early test of the entire flight, from launch to 120,000 feet and back down again, and it worked brilliantly.”
The smaller system was launched to test and prove the concept, design and technologies. The next step is to build a full-scale system and fly that, Poynter said.
Tucson-based Paragon Space Development Corporation formed World View with the promise of offering a spaceflight experience that is gentle, comfortable and life changing. The first flights are slated to launch in 2016.
“We want to be able to give people that amazing and spectacular experience of seeing the world from space,” Poynter said.
Once limited to astronauts, spaceflight is now closer to being within the grasp of everyday people. Poynter offers statements from astronauts as a glimpse into what the experience will offer.
“Just about every one of them talks about it in incredibly poetic terms. It changed the way they view the world they live in,” Poynter said. “I had a similar experience in Biosphere 2, but from the opposite perspective. I was very cognizant of the biosphere.”
Poynter was a founding member of the Biosphere 2 design, development, test and operations team, and a crew member in the first two-year mission, living and working inside the closed ecological system.
World View Enterprises envisions its passengers – called voyagers – floating peacefully to the edge of space for a two-hour flight, similar to sailing. The two crew and six voyagers will travel inside a specially engineered and luxuriously appointed capsule, transported by a parafoil and high-altitude balloon.
Poynter calls the 360-degree views of the Earth below and the blackness of space beyond “the world’s most spectacular panorama.”
World View aims to make that view and that experience as broadly accessible as possible, ultimately allowing for educators, researchers, private companies and government agencies to have affordable access to the near-space environment.
“We want to lower the barriers for entry for people who want to go to space,” Poynter said. “The idea of going on a rocket is very scary for people, so we wanted to give people something that is a more gentle experience.”
World View isn’t the only commercial space flight company, but each one offers something different.
“None of us feel that we’re in competition,” Poynter said. “Virgin is giving such a completely different experience from ours. Ours will be slow and you’ll be able to stay aloft for hours enjoying that spectacular view.”
World View flights are priced at $75,000, far less expensive than Virgin Galactic’s $250,000.
“Unfortunately we aren’t able to bring it down below that yet, but over time we will be working to make it more accessible,” Poynter said.
World View is not disclosing numbers, but Poynter said the company has booked several flights.
“An entire family has booked a flight,” she said. “We have couples booking flights. We’re trying to make space travel a family affair.”
One advantage of the balloon and parafoil system is the relatively low infrastructure needs when compared to rocket-based flights. Because of that, World View can build multiple launch sites.
Page, in northern Arizona, might be one of the primary launch sites because of the weather, and World View is also looking at other spots in Arizona and New Mexico.
“Because we are weather dependent, we probably will have several launch sites so that we’re able to launch most of the year,” Poynter said.
The June test flight focused on four main areas – launch and ground operations, a redundant landing system, parafoil aerodynamics and precision-guided landing.
The parafoil performance was especially exciting, Poynter said. Parafoils routinely fly about 30,000 feet, but have never before achieved the altitude that World View achieved.
“It represents a foundational achievement that moves us one step closer to offering a life-changing experience to our voyagers,” Poynter said.
World View’s operations depend on a change to state law passed this year. On June 18, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill giving spaceflight companies in Arizona the liability protections necessary to support the industry. State Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, sponsored the bill, which passed nearly unanimously.
“With the governor’s signing of this bill into law, Arizona becomes a favorable option for World View’s commercial flight operations,” said Taber McCallum, CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation and an original crewmember of the Biosphere 2 experiment.
“With beautiful views of the Grand Canyon, ideal weather conditions, a skilled workforce and a favorable business climate, Arizona represents an ideal location for World View flight operations,” McCallum said. “We extend our gratitude to Arizona lawmakers for their support and look forward to working with the state to bring commercial spaceflight to Arizona.”