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NSRC 2020

World View balloon
An artist’s rendition of the World View capsule and parafoil suspended from a balloon at an altitude of 30 kilometers. The system is considered a launch vehicle by the FAA primarily because the capsule is designed to operate in outer space. (credit: World View Enterprises)

A new launch vehicle that lofts, rather that lifts off

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If you’re asked to picture in your mind a “launch vehicle,” what most likely pops up is a picture of a conventional rocket, lifting off vertically from a launch pad using rocket engines powered by solid and/or liquid propellants. Perhaps you might think of an air-launched rocket, like Orbital Sciences’ Pegasus rocket of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo. Or, possibly, a rocketplane that takes off from a runway, like XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx.

What probably doesn’t come to mind—at least before last week—was a balloon. While high-altitude balloons frequently carry payloads high into the stratosphere (sometimes labeled “space” in the media), these balloons have not been treated from a regulatory standpoint as launch vehicles. Now, though, a new venture seeking to offer people a taste of the spaceflight experience has gotten its vehicle classified as a launch vehicle by US regulators, a move the company says is essential to its business plan but one that has raised some eyebrows in the broader space community.

The World View experience

The venture that won this classification of a balloon as a launch vehicle is a Tucson-based startup called World View Enterprises (not to be confused with the WorldView series of remote sensing satellites by Colorado-based DigitalGlobe.) The company features some familiar names in the commercial space industry. Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum, the CEO and CTO, respectively, of World View, are also co-founders and current executives of Paragon Space Development Corporation, a company that specializes in life support systems. The two are also involved in Inspiration Mars, the non-profit foundation announced earlier this year to develop a crewed human Mars flyby mission for launch in 2018 (see “A Martian adventure for inspiration, not commercialization”, The Space Review, March 4, 2013). A third Paragon co-founder, Grant Anderson, is also 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.

“We want to be able give people access to the experience of seeing the Earth from space,” Poynter said.

The company’s plan is to provide the public with a suborbital spaceflight experience that doesn’t go as high or as fast as other suborbital ventures like Virgin or XCOR, but would instead last longer. World View will use a balloon to lift a pressurized capsule to an altitude of 30 kilometers. The capsule will be able to remain at that altitude for several hours, giving the eight people on board (initially two pilots and six passengers, although the company said they may later replace one pilot with an additional passenger) views of the Earth as if they’re in space. At the end of the mission, the capsule will detach from the balloon and glide back to the ground using a parafoil.

In an interview the day before the company publicly announced its plans on October 22, Poynter and MacCallum said 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, which offer only a few minutes of flight above 30 kilometers. “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.

Poynter and MacCallum added they don’t see World View 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, something the World View balloon flights won’t feature. 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 reason for that is that World View is pricing their flights significantly below other suborbital companies. They plan to offer tickets on their balloon flights for $75,000, less than XCOR’s current price of $95,000 or Virgin, who recently raised their ticket prices from $200,000 to $250,000.

World View is perhaps more closely competing with zero2infinity, a Spanish company 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. Neither Poynter nor MacCallum said last week that 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.

“This would not be possible without the spaceflight regulatory regime,” MacCallum said.

Those investors, they said, come from outside the small community of aerospace ventures and wealthy “super angel” individual investors. The company is currently funded from sources like Las Vegas-based VegasTech Fund and others involved in resorts. “We didn’t feel the need to go to the space or aerospace technology world for funding,” Poynter said. “The luxury experience world is where a lot of our funding came from.”

The investors have provided World View with an unspecified amount of money sufficient to carry the company through its current development phase, Poynter said. 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.

Balloon as launch vehicle

Last week’s announcement of World View was tied to the publication by the FAA of its ruling regarding how the company would be regulated. The company’s lawyers sought a determination earlier this year of whether the high-altitude balloon with its pressurized capsule could be considered a launch vehicle and thus regulated by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Transportation.

In the September 26 letter from the FAA’s Office of Chief Counsel to World View’s attorneys, the FAA concluded that World View, in fact, could be considered a launch vehicle and thus regulated as one, including the requirement for launch licenses on its commercial missions. The basis for that determination was the FAA’s interpretation of the definition of a launch vehicle, as described in federal law (51 USC § 50902):

(8) “launch vehicle” means—
(A) a vehicle built to operate in, or place a payload or human beings in, outer space; and
(B) a suborbital rocket.

The FAA concluded the second definition obviously did not apply, since the World View balloon was not a rocket. Instead, it based its interpretation on the first definition, that of a vehicle “built to operate in… outer space”. At the operating altitudes of the balloon, the conditions—particularly the low atmospheric pressure—require the same protections from the environment as a vehicle in low Earth orbit. “At Paragon’s intended altitude of 30 kilometers (98,425 feet), water and blood boil, and an unprotected person would rapidly experience fatal decompression,” the FAA letter stated. “Given the proposed shirt-sleeves environment, the duration of its mission and the physiological responses of a human body to the altitude at which Paragon intends its World View capsule to operate, the capsule needs to be built to operate in outer space.”

That determination, MacCallum said, was necessary for World View to operate. “This would not be possible without the spaceflight regulatory regime,” he said. “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.

The FAA’s ruling, though, has led to some spirited discussions in the spaceflight regulatory community. The fact that World View flies to an altitude of only 30 kilometers, well short of the Kármán line of 100 kilometers (made famous by the Ansari X PRIZE suborbital spaceflight competition) or even the 80-kilometer altitude at which NASA and the Air Force award astronaut wings, led some to wonder if this was an attempt to redefine the boundary of space or, at least, to expand the scope of vehicles that fell under the jurisdiction of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. In its letter, the FAA explicitly made clear it was not making any determination regarding the boundary of space: “The FAA will not address the more difficult question of whether Paragon’s proposed altitude of 30 kilometers constitutes outer space.” (In fact, “outer space” itself is not explicitly defined in federal law.)

That issue came up during discussion Thursday at the Space and Satellite Regulatory Colloquium at the Washington, DC, offices of law firm Jones Day. (The event was held under the Chatham House Rule, which prohibits attribution of comments.) Some questioned the FAA’s determination, claiming that it didn’t meet at least a common-sense definition of launch vehicle. “The FAA is in a box,” said one participant. “They’ve got to do the outer space definition now, or will have to shortly.”

“The FAA is in a box,” said one participant of a space law event. “They’ve got to do the outer space definition now, or will have to shortly.”

Another attendee wondered if the FAA’s determination clashed with the ongoing effort by the federal government to reform export controls. A May 2013 draft of the revised Category XV of the US Munitions List, covering spacecraft and related items, defines a “space-qualified” article as one “designed, manufactured, or qualified through successful testing, for operation at altitudes greater than 100 km above the surface of the Earth.” (One potential solution to that conflict is that the World View spacecraft will be designed for operation in Earth orbit, even if it operates at lower altitudes.) Another person asked if World View would need a NOAA commercial remote sensing license, as required for Earth observation satellites, if the company planned to take any imagery on its flights.

World View’s operations fall in an area that another conference participant dubbed the “protozone,” a region between 21 and 100 kilometers altitude that lies between regulated airspace and commonly accepted definitions of outer space. (That region has sometimes also been called “near space,” particularly by the US military.) It is a region with a “diffused regulatory environment” and no widely-accepted proposals for a international regulatory oversight model of it.

For now, World View believes it is on solid regulatory ground as it develops its system. “Fundamentally, the capsule is a spacecraft, and it will be qualified like a spacecraft,” Poynter said. And while that capsule won’t come close to any altitude-based definitions of space, she believes World View is indeed a commercial space venture. “I’m personally very excited about this,” she said, adding in last week’s interview that 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.”