Celestial Clout

Stellar Companies Make Tucson a True Space City

By Tara Kirkpatrick

Buoyed by ample skies and mild weather, an inclusive aerospace community and a University of Arizona pipeline of skilled aeronautical and engineering talent, Tucson is home to numerous private space companies that are fueling the next frontier.

These companies are building better space suits and life support systems, mapping and monitoring the earth, creating innovative antenna, streamlining mission communications and making space access easier and more cost-efficient, especially as space tourism gains strength.

“Space is a key part of our aerospace and defense cluster, which is one of our four targeted industries for business attraction and expansion here in Southern Arizona,” said Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor inc.  “Anchored by the strengths of the UA, our innovations in space lead the country.”

Space companies say the region is incredibly conducive to their success.

“Arizona is one of the great aerospace capitals of the world,” said Jim Cantrell, founder of Phantom Space Corporation. “We’ve brought people here from SpaceX, Blue Origin, McDonnell Douglas and NASA. They’ve all come to work here in Tucson and they love it.”

Agreed Ryan Hartman, president and CEO of World View, “Just the business-friendly nature of Pima County and Tucson as a whole…it’s a great place to establish your business. When you’re recruiting talent into a company…Tucson is a great aerospace city.”

“One of the smartest decisions we made was to base Paragon in Tucson,” said Grant Anderson, president and CEO of Paragon Space Development Corporation, which has been part of every human space program of record since 1999. “It was also the easiest decision to make.”

Here’s a look at several of the region’s space companies:

Paragon Space Development Corporation

Co-founded in 1993 by longtime aerospace entrepreneur Grant Anderson, Paragon Space Development Corporation has been on the forefront of systems designed for extreme environments in sea, land, air, and space for 30 years. The Tucson-based company has provided design, analysis and hardware on every human space program of record since 1999. 

Life support in extreme environments has resonated with Anderson since his engineering studies. “Not only do you need to understand the engineering and mechanics…you also need to understand the biology and the chemistry,” said Anderson, who is now an esteemed speaker and industry expert on the subject. “Space is the ultimate extreme environment.”

Among recent accomplishments, Paragon is part of the team to develop the next-generation spacesuit that combines with its unparalleled life support systems. “We want to be in on that market,” Anderson said. “Frankly, being the only company that can build a spacesuit from the ground up from the soles of the feet to the top of the head and the communications and the life support and everything else–It’s a pretty unique capability to have.”

The company is also a partner with Northrop Grumman on the Habitation and Logistics Outpost module, or HALO–essentially a small, pressurized apartment that will orbit the moon and provide a temporary home and workplace for space crews going to and from the lunar surface.

Paragon’s groundbreaking brine processing system–which recycles astronaut pee, sweat and breath into drinkable water–is also currently on the International Space Station. “What do you have to have to operate in space? You better have some water,” said Ron Sable, who relishes his position as Paragon’s board chairman because of the company’s exciting work. “We recycle water on the space station–98% plus of non-potable water becomes potable water.” 

Looking ahead to 2025, Paragon will be a prime contractor on the first-ever stratospheric balloon jump from the edge of space done by a woman that’s set to break current world records. The company will provide the high-altitude spacesuit and related technical expertise for the historic jump–a feat Paragon has already succeeded in when skydiver Alan Eustace set a stratospheric record in 2014 using its pressurized suit system

World View

A leading global stratospheric exploration company, World View has an enviable record of accomplishments in the stratospheric ballooning industry. Founded in 2012, the Tucson company is also reimagining space tourism to offer an intentional earth observation experience for future travelers–100,000 feet into the stratosphere. 

“We exist to inspire, create and explore new perspectives for a radically improved future,” said World View President and CEO Ryan Hartman. 

That mission begins with the company’s legacy remote sensing capabilities through stratospheric ballooning, which offers freedom from the constraints of an aircraft or satellite. World View has launched more than 120 such flights so far to provide unequaled monitoring of the earth’s surface.

“When it comes to remote sensing, one of the things that differentiates us is the focus on creating unique perspectives, if you will, that provide a new insight or a new set of insights into what’s happening on the surface of the earth,” Hartman said. “And so that could be applied to commercial customers in the oil and gas industry and electric utilities and agriculture.”

World View is also looking ahead to space tourism, which will launch out of six wondrous positions on the globe, from the Grand Canyon to the Great Barrier Reef. The $50,000 experience would bring travelers first to the site for personal exploration and then culminate with a view from the stratosphere. Hartman himself plans to be on the future maiden voyage.

“What we’re talking about is a very gentle ascent to the edge of space, a very gentle descent back down to the surface of the earth. You’re not strapping yourself to a rocket…it’s just a very gentle experience,” he said. 

The company is currently focused on testing and validating the safety of its vision and completing all regulatory requirements. 

Phantom Space Corporation

Founded by one of the first employees of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and a true Renaissance man, Phantom Space Corporation aims to revolutionize the way we transport satellites and other assets into space. The company employs 25 people and occupies a 100,000 square-foot building in Tucson.

“Phantom Space wants to be the Henry Ford of space,” explained founder Jim Cantrell, also a noted author and race car driver. “We want to apply mass manufacturing like Henry Ford did at this time to launch vehicles and satellites, to make space more universally accessible, and also to bring the cost down and to make getting things into space more rapid.”

To achieve that, the company focuses on a three-phase business plan, building its own launch vehicle, building satellites for its customers and finally to create its own constellation of satellites for space applications.

“There’s a lot of room in the space business for innovation, because it’s been a government-controlled industry for most of my career. And now, it’s just kind of coming out of the dark ages, if you will,” Cantrell said. 

Phantom is roughly a year away from the first launch of its Daytona rocket. “We’ve been very quiet for about the last four years developing it. It’s a launch vehicle that’s targeting the 1000-pound-and-under satellite class. That is the fastest growing segment of the space industry.”  

The company has also secured a $300 million NASA contract for launch services as well as contracts to design and develop satellites for customers. It hopes to hire an additional 25 employees in the coming year.

FreeFall Aerospace

FreeFall Aerospace is disrupting the communications infrastructure for the New Space Economy with low-cost, low-power antennas to support satellites. Its technology is as novel as it is cost-effective and has garnered a lot of industry attention.

“Our patented technologies and antenna designs are based on spherical geometry,” said Dan Geraci, the Tucson company’s new CEO. “This leads to very low-power, low-maintenance and low-cost antennas.”

Demand for tens of thousands of new antennas in the coming decade is accelerating. FreeFall’s technology is aimed squarely at this demand.

“We’re uniquely positioned to disrupt the terrestrial and space antenna marketplace,” said Geraci. “The timing is right.”

The company, co-founded by Doug Stetson and Chris Walker with seed funding from UAVenture Capital and its CEO Fletcher McCusker, was incubated out of Tech Launch Arizona. It was honored as a Startup of the Year Finalist in 2022 and Innovation Leader of the Year in 2019. Walker was named Inventor of the Year in 2018 and the company received TechConnect Defense Innovation Awards in 2017 and 2018.

FreeFall prides itself as a flexible, family-friendly employer–there are two office dogs, in fact–and a creativity juggernaut for engineers. Julie Bonner, FreeFall’s director of communications, summarized it best. “We have an environment of creativity, flexibility and innovation here.”


As self-described “mapmakers of the space age,” Lunasonde offers subsurface data about Earth from orbit. Based in a 5,000-square-foot clean room facility in the Catalina Foothills, the startup has grown from three to 12 employees and has experienced solid investment.

In November, Lunasonde launched a satellite, founder Jeremiah Pate shared at a recent Arizona Space Business Roundtable. Called Picacho, it was built in the clean room space, and will allow the company to test its proprietary low-frequency antenna in space. The company works with sparsely used low-frequency radio waves, and is “among the first to build the technology to operate at this frequency range,” Pate said. 

Low-frequency radio wave technology “allows us to see our planet and our universe in a completely different way,” he said. The company is building a new technology around this whole spectrum. Because low frequency waves travel beneath the earth’s surface, interacting with subsurface strata up to a few kilometers deep, Lunasonde’s technology may allow “underground earth observation,” the ability to look beneath the earth’s surface for minerals such as cobalt, lithium and nickel, oil and gas, and water.

“Low frequency is an underutilized radio astronomy band, but it allows for imaging the universe at its earliest era,” Pate said. It could “image the universe back to 370,000 years after the Big Bang.”

Airy Optics

Founded in 2016 by UArizona Professor of Optical Sciences Russell Chipman, Airy Optics is a Tucson company that drives the use of polarization in optical design in innovative and accessible ways for aerospace & defense, consumer electronics, scientific instrumentation and consumer packaging. 

The company and its team of optical engineers is led by President Jeremy Shockley.

Polarization used to be treated as a secondary concern by major optical modeling and analysis tools and often not supported. Chipman, who has long focused his research on polarization issues in optical design, received a $1.2 million grant from Science Foundation Arizona to develop a polarization ray tracing program in 2009.

Called Polaris-M, the optical design and polarization analysis software program has over 500 functions. Chipman founded Airy Optics, licensing Polaris-M for commercialization from UArizona and creating a team to offer engineering services for different markets.

Ascending Node Technologies

Ascending Node Technologies’ founders–Sanford Selznick, Carl Hergenrother and John Kidd–have over five decades of collective experience designing scalable and robust ground data systems to support missions ranging from orbiting Mars to exploring previously unseen asteroids. 

Their experience with the OSIRIS-REx mission, which required data management from numerous instruments, engineering teams and science working groups in real time, spurred them to develop a system that would enable spacecraft designers and operators to work better together.

The company’s flagship product, Spaceline, is a new web-based application that creates interactive 3D visualizations of a mission right in the browser, so data can be shared for collaboration and feedback. It has been supported by several NASA Small Business Innovation Research Phase II awards.

Aerospace & Defense Review awarded Ascending Node as a “Top Space Tech Solutions Provider” in 2022.

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