Startup World View Enterprises Inc. envisions a commercial high-altitude balloon experience for luxury-minded passengers and scientific researchers that will strive to deliver many of the prolonged experiences of spaceflight without the confinement, cost, risks or health limitations associated with rocket launches.
The Tucson, Ariz.-based company is looking toward late 2016 to inaugurate commercial flights, potentially from Spaceport America in New Mexico, whereexpects to begin launching suborbital passenger missions aboard the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo as soon as next year.
World View’s helium balloon would float to 30 km (98,425 ft./18.6 mi.) over a span of 90 min. to 2 hr. on a typical flight, hoisting a comfortably appointed eight-passenger gondola outfitted with a bar, food service and electronic connectivity suspended below. The gondola, pressurized to one atmosphere throughout the flight, would loiter for 2 to 6 hr. at peak altitude to afford views of the Earth, the arc of the horizon and the blackness of space for the adventure-minded passenger or access to the stratosphere for scientists investigating high-altitude medical issues or meteoritics, among other fields of inquiry.
A typical flight would descend within 20 to 40 min. with the aid of a large, navigable para wing, affording a few seconds of weightlessness for passengers, according to a mission profile still in development.
The ticket price is $75,000.
“We want to give people that experience of seeing the Earth from space for hours at a time and being able to contemplate the curvature of the Earth and all that comes with that experience,” said Jane Poynter, World View CEO. “By all accounts, it’s just magical. We believe it can be a really transformative.”
“Think of this as super first class, a high-end luxury experience,” added Taber MacCallum, World View’s chief technology officer. “Luxury branding spaceflight is really what we are doing.”
World View was awaiting confirmation from’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that its balloon operations will fall under the agency’s Chapter 509 jurisdiction on grounds the crew compartment, life support systems and other hardware will be developed and operated as though they were in space, said Poynter and MacCallum, who outlined World View’s business strategy in an Oct. 21 telephone interview.
Though well below the 100 km Karman demarcation recognized by the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, or International Air Sports Federation, of Lausanne, Switzerland, as the boundary between the atmosphere and space, 30 km altitude still carries all the human hazards of space exposure, including fatal decompression.
Tucson-based Paragon Space Development Corp., the developers of spaceflight life support and thermal control systems, is serving as World View’s flight systems prime contractor and technical partner. Poynter and MacCallum were among Paragon’s founders in 1993 before spinning off the balloon venture.
They’ve been joined at World View by Alan Stern, a formerassociate administrator for science, who serves as the company’s chief scientist, and Grant Anderson, Paragon’s chief engineer.
World View is deliberately looking beyond space enthusiasts and the aerospace industry for passengers, a direction that has earned the company financial backing from the VegasTechFund and Philippe Bourguignon, chair of Miraval, the luxury resorts group, and a former president of Euro Disney.
“There are some very significant things happening in the luxury market. Spending in that very large industry is moving from the purchase of luxury goods to the purchase of once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Poynter said. “You can say we are part of that market trend. We have a very accessible kind of experience for people. It does not have the whole rocket ride, which I’m sure will be very exciting. But it’s a very different experience. It’s much more extreme, while we intend to be something that just about anyone can imagine themselves doing. We are finding it really broadens the market. We are discovering that people who want to do this are not first and foremost space enthusiasts.”
While World View has looked at Spaceport America as a base of operations, it has not made a final decision.
“There are a whole host of places we are looking at right now. The way this will probably work is we will end up with several launch sites,” Poynter said. “Our entire operation has been designed to be incredibly flexible. We will not need to have huge external facilities on the ground. We can pick up everything and move to where we need to be.”
Expect no more than 50 flights during the first year of operations, she said. Then expect World View to expand beyond the U.S.
World View’s operations depend on decades of weather and science balloon development and operations as the foundation for its 400,000-cubic meter, helium-filled polyethylene “launch vehicle.” Each static liftoff of the balloon will include deployment of a yet-to-be-sized, navigable para wing as a safety measure to ensure the gondola can be piloted back to Earth either by the two-person crew or remotely from a ground-based control center, Tabor said.
World View believes each mission eventually can be led by a single pilot.
Component testing is already under way. Subscale testing will continue through the second quarter of 2014, much of it in parallel with systems engineering evaluations to validate the flight profile. Much of that focus will be on the transitions from under balloon to under para wing flight regimes, Tabor said.
Assembly of the first full-scale systems should be under way in mid-2014, followed by full-scale component testing and construction of the first commercial flight balloon in 2015, Tabor said.