A new company featuring some familiar faces is planning to develop a high altitude balloon system that will carry passengers to the edge of space on multi-hour flights, but be treated as a launch vehicle by federal regulators.
Tucson-based World View Enterprises is formally unveiling its plans today for developing a system that will transport eight people in a pressurized capsule up to an altitude of 30 kilometers (98,400 feet), where they will remain for up to several hours before descending to Earth under a parafoil. The company expects to begin these flights no earlier than 2016, charging $75,000 a ticket, considerably less than rocket-powered suborbital space tourism ventures like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.
The announcement is tied to the expected publication today by the FAA of a determination that World View’s vehicle is considered a launch vehicle, and thus would be regulated by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and not the aviation side of the FAA. That determination means that World View flights would take place under a launch license, just like commercial suborbital and orbital rocket launches.
That determination is based on the FAA’s interpretation of the definition of a launch vehicle under federal law (specifically, 51 USC § 50902). The law defines a launch vehicle as being either “a vehicle built to operate in, or place a payload or human beings in, outer space” or “a suborbital rocket.” (The term “outer space” is not explicitly defined in federal law.) The second definition doesn’t apply to World View, since it is not a rocket, but FAA lawyers noted that the capsule will be designed to operate as if it was in orbit, and that humans could not survive in the environment at an altitude of 30 kilometers without the protection the capsule provided. “Regardless of whether 30 kilometers constitutes outer space—and the FAA renders no opinion on that question—a person would experience the same physiological responses at 30 kilometers as if exposed to the environment of low-Earth orbit (LEO),” the FAA letter states. Because of that, and also because the vehicle spends most of the time of each flight at that altitude, the FAA considers it a launch vehicle and thus will be licensed as such.
“This would not be possible without the spaceflight regulatory regime,” Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer of World View Enterprises, said in an interview on Monday. “On the aviation side, the regulations don’t fit.” Specifically, he said FAA regulations for balloons only cover those with wicker gondolas and require much higher levels of structural safety in the balloon than what’s feasible with World View’s design.
“Fundamentally, the capsule is a spacecraft, and it will be qualified like a spacecraft,” said Jane Poynter, the CEO of World View.
Poynter and MacCallum are familiar faces in the space industry, co-founders of Paragon Space Development Corporation, a company that specializes in life support systems; Poynter is president and chairwoman of the company and MacCallum is CEO and CTO. MacCallum is also CTO of the Inspiration Mars Foundation, the project announced earlier this year to design a crewed Mars flyby mission for launch in 2018. A third co-founder of Paragon, chief engineer Grant Anderson, will also be supporting World View, while Alan Stern, a former NASA associate administrator who is involved with multiple commercial ventures, including Golden Spike, will be World View’s chief scientist.
World View in funded for its current development phase, Poynter said, from sources like the VegasTech Fund and others involved in resorts. “We didn’t feel the need to go to the space or aerospace technology world for funding,” she said. “The luxury experience world is where a lot of our funding came from.”
The company is marketing the balloon flights on the experience of seeing the Earth from (near) space, offering views for far longer than possible on suborbital rocket-powered flights. “We want to be able give people access to the experience of seeing the Earth from space,” Poynter said, perhaps giving passengers the experience of the “Overview Effect” that many astronauts have experienced on orbital flights. MacCallum noted that James May, one of the stars of the British show Top Gear, found a high-altitude flight on a U-2 aircraft to be a particularly transformative experience, giving them confidence that the even higher and longer World View flights can have a similar effect on passengers.
The company doesn’t see itself in competition with Virgin, XCOR, or others planning rocket-powered suborbital flights that will go to altitudes of 100 kilometers or more and offer several minutes of weightlessness. In fact, Poynter and MacCallum believe the balloon flights may encourage people to then go on suborbital rocket flights. “I really think we’ll end up being a feeder, helping the other suborbital folks,” MacCallum said.
A company they will be in much closer competition with is Spanish company zero2infinity, which is planning similar high-altitude passenger balloon flights under the “bloon” name. That company is proposing slightly higher flights (to 36 kilometers) in a pressurized capsule that can carry four passengers and two pilots. (World View is initially planning to carry six passengers and two pilots, later going to seven passengers and one pilot.) Neither Poynter nor MacCallum said they knew enough about zero2infinity to comment on how they were different, but noted the presence of two companies offering similar experiences helped validate the market in the eyes of their investors.
For now, World View is working on smaller scale tests of the complete flight profile through early next year, after which they’ll move on to development of the full-scale system and tests that they expect will take two years. Commercial operations would begin in 2016 at the earliest, a schedule MacCallum acknowledged required everything in the development process to go smoothly. While the FAA determination specified Spaceport America in New Mexico as the launch site of the flights, the company is looking at multiple locations, perhaps rotating the system though several on a seasonal basis.
“I’m personally very excited about this,” said Poynter, who noted she would be cutting back on her responsibilities at Paragon to focus on World View. “We’re really bringing something new into this incredibly exciting time in commercial spaceflight.”