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World View headquarters
After a vote by Pima County, Arizona, officials, World View will move into a custom-designed new headquarters and manufacturing facility, with adjacent launch site, late this year. (credit: World View)

A different kind of spaceport

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In the coming weeks, workers in southern Arizona will start work on the country’s newest spaceport. Its primary feature will be a circular concrete pad, a little more than 200 meters across. And that will be just about the only component of the spaceport: no runways, no gantries, no flame trenches or any of the other accouterments usually associated with spaceports.

“We were looking very hard at Florida and New Mexico,” said Poynter. “They put incredible offers on the table, but we were really happy that Arizona stepped up.”

Spaceport Tucson, though, will serve a very different type of vehicle. The facility is intended to be the home base for World View, the company developing high-altitude balloons designed to carry experiments and, eventually, people to altitudes of about 30 kilometers. That’s far short of any traditional definition of space, like the 100-kilometer Kármán line, but the company has been billing itself has giving people a spaceflight-like experience, and will be regulated by one (see “A new launch vehicle that lofts, rather that lifts off”, The Space Review, October 28, 2013).

The spaceport, and a neighboring building that will serve as World View’s new headquarters and manufacturing facility, will be built by the local government to keep the company from moving out of state. Supervisors in Pima County, which includes Tucson, approved the $15-million plan in a 4–1 vote January 19.

World View is based on Tucson, where it spun off from Paragon Space Development Corporation, but was weighing proposals from other states as it sought to expand. “We were looking very hard at Florida and New Mexico,” Jane Poynter, World View CEO, said in an interview. “They put incredible offers on the table, but we were really happy that Arizona stepped up.”

According to Pima County documents, the Enterprise Florida business development agency offered World View business and equipment financing, “attractive” lease rates, and tax incentives to operate from the state’s Space Coast area. New Mexico offered a similar package to fly out of Spaceport America, including what it called a “substantial expenditure from their ‘deal closing’ funds.”

What Pima County offered was to build a new headquarters building and “spaceport” for World View just south of Tucson International Airport. World View will lease the facility for the county over next 20 years, paying rent that will start at $675,000 a year and grow over time to more than $1.6 million a year. That, according to county documents, will allow the local government to recoup the total cost of the project (a little more than $20 million when interest payments are included) with a net profit of more than $3 million at the end of the 20 years.

That deal was good enough to keep the company in Tucson. “Certainly what pushed us over the edge is that Pima County is building a spaceport right next to our build-to-suit facility,” Poynter said. “It’ll be super cool to have Spaceport Tucson literally right outside our back door.”

“There’s an awful of things we can do with this,” Poynter said. “To some degree, think of anything you can do with a satellite, we can do with balloons.”

The proximity of the spaceport to the airport, as well as a nearby US Air Force base, shouldn’t pose a problem for the company. “We’ve already had kickoff meetings with the FAA, and they didn’t see any issues with it,” said Taber MacCallum, World View’s chief technology officer.

MacCallum noted the airspace around Tucson is among the most tightly controlled in the Southwest because of the military presence in the region. “This is great for us, because we can launch into a very well controlled airspace,” he said. “And, because we go straight up, we’re really not much of a disturbance.”

World View is best known for its plans to fly people into the stratosphere, giving them a taste of spaceflight. The company is working on a pressurized cabin that will take six people, plus a two-person crew, on flights at $75,000 a ticket. Poynter said the company was planning to begin those flights from Tucson around the end of 2017.

Those flights, while not involving traditional rocket propulsion nor going into space, will still operate under a launch license from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The FAA ruled in 2013 that the flights could be licensed because the cabin they would fly in was designed to operate in outer space environments. That means Spaceport Tucson will require an FAA spaceport license for those flights, and MacCallum said they’ve started that licensing process.

World View, though, has been exploring other uses of its balloon technology. It has a contract with NASA’s Flight Opportunities program to fly experiments on its balloons, and carried out the first flight under that contract early last year.

The company is exploring other uses of the balloons, including applications like communications and remote sensing that have traditionally been performed by satellites. “There’s an awful of things we can do with this,” Poynter said. “To some degree, think of anything you can do with a satellite, we can do with balloons.”

World View, though, is not planning to compete directly with efforts like Google’s Project Loon, which seeks to place up to 100,000 balloons into the skies to provide broadband Internet access. “We’re really looking at tactical communications, some Defense Department applications,” MacCallum said, supporting troops in areas like canyons where satellite communications don’t work well. “It’s more of a tactical, emergency response application.”

“Approving this contract without performing the due diligence that the voters deserve” is unwise, Miller argued.

It’s that potential for growth in not just tourism but other applications that prompted local officials to take steps to keep World View from moving out of state. As part of the agreement for the new headquarters and spaceport, World View agreed to grow its workforce, currently at about 25, to 400 or more people in five years, according to county documents.

To justify the investment, the county sought an independent analysis by Applied Economics, a Phoenix-based economic consulting firm. It estimated that, in addition to the more than 400 jobs created at World View itself, the company would create nearly 400 more indirect and induced jobs from its activities. The resulting economic impact would be $3.5 billion over the 20-year lease period.

Those numbers, which assume World View will be able to grow quickly over the next five years, were music to the ears of most local officials. “World View and Pima County have embarked on a great and bold journey together today,” said Sharon Bronson, chair of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, in a statement. “I can’t wait to see that first balloon rise up to the heavens and see the stars.”

Not everyone on the board, though, supported the deal. Supervisor Ally Miller criticized many elements of it, from the lack of details about World View’s business plan to the fact that she and other board members received the proposal just a few days before the January 19 board meeting.

“Approving this contract without performing the due diligence that the voters deserve” is unwise, she argued during the 90-minute debate about the proposal. “Picking winners and losers will deter private sector development in Pima County.”

Miller also likened the proposal to the far larger Spaceport America, whose projected economic growth has yet to meet expectations, largely because of delays encountered by its anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic. “New Mexico’s spaceport, from what I have researched on it, is a $250-million failure,” she said. “I’m certain the taxpayers won’t forget what happens here today.”

A handful of taxpayers did show up and speak during the hearing, most opposed to the deal. But those arguments didn’t sway the other board members. “We understand your track record,” Supervisor Ray Carroll said to Poynter and MacCallum at the board meeting. “We’re grateful that you’re here.” Miller was the only board member to vote against the deal.

With the deal approved, construction of the new World View complex and spaceport should begin shortly. The spaceport—the concrete pad with power, data, and other utilities—should be ready to support flights around the middle of the year, MacCallum said. The main facility should be ready by late this year.

MacCallum noted that he recalled seeing a graphic that highlighted in green states with some kind of space presence, particularly commercial space. Nearly all the states along the southern tier of the US, from California to Florida, were green. “The only gray state in that entire belt is Arizona,” he said. “So we’re happy to see the government here realize that commercial space is an industry they want to have, and turn that state green.”