June 19, 2018, marks six months since the World View Spaceport hydrogen balloon explosion, and the promise of an independent investigation into the causes and damage. World View was established by the Pima County Board of Supervisors floating a $15 million loan to build the facility and leasing it to World View.
The explosion, which broke ceiling tiles loose in Raytheon’s missile facility a mile away, was not reported in the media nor mentioned by the County until ADI published a video of the event. With prompting by Supervisor Ally Miller, preliminary damage reports were made public in February, 2018. While County Administrator Charles Huckelberry minimized the damage as “superficial,” independent knowledgeable observers looked at the reports and photos and concluded that the explosion resulted in considerably more than superficial damage.
An “independent investigation” by an “accident review board” led by NASA retiree Wayne Hale of Special Aeronautic Services in Colorado was commissioned by World View, with the participation of its landlord, Pima County, in the person of Assistant County Administrator John Voorhees. That investigation has been completed and a draft report sent to the county, but won’t be made public, according to Voorhees, for “another month or so.”
Everyone involved is being closemouthed about the report and its findings. Hale’s assistant, Yvith Murphy, told us that they “can’t comment”, that World View would have to answer ADI’s questions. Emails to World View went unanswered. World View’s web site has no mention of the explosion among its collection of news stories.
John Voorhees returned our call to say that the investigation has been concluded and that the county was reviewing the draft. He called it a “slow-moving ballgame,” noting that the county, “as landlords, we have to be deliberate and careful.” Voorhees said that the report would be given to elected officials “after review” and at that point it would become a public document. Supervisor Ally Miller has directed a number of questions to the County Administrator and, because of crowded agendas and July 4 holiday absences, expects to get answers at the August 7 BOS meeting.
This “slow-moving ballgame” inevitably raises some disturbing questions. If there is a “draft” report that is under review by the county and that review will take another “month or so,” what is going on? Experience suggests that the draft report is being rewritten, at least in part, to fit the perceived needs of the County Administrator who has been championing World View from the beginning. That is very different from the report being “made available to Pima County for our information and comment,” as Huckelberry stated in his February 8 memo to the Supervisors.
The World View saga has emerged as a signal case of misuse of county administrator power and taxpayer dollars. The Board of Supervisors, in January, 2016, agreed to borrow $15 million for World View to build its factory and launch facility. With interest on the loan, the total cost to taxpayers is about $20 million, to be repaid as rent. Huckelberry promises a profit for the county in 20 years.
The Goldwater Institute sued Pima County in April, 2016, charging that state laws about competitive bidding had been violated in the World View case. A Superior Court judge agreed and in February, 2017, voided the lease agreement. An Appeals Court reversed that in December, 2017, just three days before the explosion.
World View’s chief accomplishment, if measured by news reports, was launching a Kentucky Fried Chicken sandwich to the edge of space. They did not launch it from “Spaceport Tucson,” however, but from a site in Page. They have downplayed their initial hype about “space tourism” and $75,000 trips up, up and away, and have attracted nearly $50 million in investment income.
World View has stiff competition. There are now eight U.S. commercial spaceports, located in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Florida, and Alaska, with another one on the way in Texas. According to the World View “Newsroom” on its website, the latest news, an April 30, 2018, article in Aerospace America, is that the company is still testing its balloons and figuring out how to overcome obstacles. No mention of explosions.