In 2016, Pima County officials approved a $15 million taxpayer-funded investment to benefit a company that promised to generate 400 employees by the end of 2021 and design a capsule tethered to a balloon that would allow people to pay to travel to the stratosphere.
But now a note on the door of World View’s state-of-the-art headquarters south of the Tucson International Airport says the business is closed “until further noted” due to COVID-19. It’s unclear when the notice was posted or whether business operations are being conducted remotely, as calls to two of the phone numbers listed went unanswered.
In addition, the company’s website doesn’t even list its business address, let alone a phone number or staff emails.
That, however, isn’t what has many county officials and aerospace business leaders concerned.
Last week World View’s CEO Jane Poynter and co-founder Taber MacCallum announced they have started a new company in Florida where they intend to pursue their dream of sending paying customers 18 miles above Earth via a balloon.
MacCallum and Poynter are co-chief executives of Space Perspective, which was incorporated in February with a business address in Cocoa Beach, Florida. The company’s website notes it plans to create a pressurized pod -called Spaceship Neptune- and launch it from NASA’s Kennedy Space Station in Florida.
The pod, which could seat eight passengers and one pilot, will be tethered to the bottom of a space balloon. After a two hour ride up, the craft would hover for two hours before descending back to Earth where it would land on water.
Test flights –without humans- could begin next year, with hopes that paid flights can start in 2024, according to Poynter.
If those plans sound familiar to Pima County taxpayers, it should.
World View garnered national attention in 2016 when it secured a $15 million commitment from Pima County to build a 120,000-square-foot headquarters and launch pad christened Spaceport Tucson near the Tucson International Airport. In return, World View is leasing the county-owned building for 20 years and agreed to employ 400 people by 2021.
At the center of the attention was World View’s much-hyped eight-person “capsule” that was to be lifted by the company’s proprietary Stratollite balloon to the stratosphere where it would disengaged to guide back to Earth with the help of a parawing, a type of large parachute.
Touchdown was to happen on land, according to the company, with test flights expected to happen by the end of 2017.
But World View ran into some problems in December 2017 when one of its balloons exploded at Spaceport Tucson, causing nearly $500,00 in damage to the county-owned building.
And in the excitement to secure those 400 jobs, some county officials seemed willing to disregard the determination by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation in 2013 that World View’s plans would require FAA licenses for commercial launches and any manned flights.
Now, MacCallum and Poynter say Florida is the place to be for any stratospheric manned flights. One reason provided for the change in locale is the need for various water options if a landing has to change course due to winds. And water landings aren’t feasible in Arizona.
It’s not clear if World View has formally dropped the stratospheric manned flight idea, or whether company officers relayed the news to Pima County officials or investors. But the company’s website makes no mention of future manned flight offerings.
In fact, the home page only addresses the “data and analytics” features of non-crewed Stratollite flight which has the capability to carry government and commercial payloads to the stratosphere and provide high resolution aerial data and analytics during high-altitude flights without the limitations of satellite orbit paths.
A Stratollite can operate at lower altitude than a satellite and can move slowly over large areas of interest while navigating at different altitudes. It capable of ongoing observation of areas of interest for days, weeks, even months at a time, and has radar and night vision capability.
Poynter went to great pains last week to reassure investors and the aerospace industry that Space Perspective will not be competing with World View.
“As World View founders and shareholders, we are World View’s wildest cheerleaders, but this is a completely separate company,” she said. “On a customer basis, we’re entirely different.”
MacCallum and Poynter are already talking about possible expansion of Space Perspective to a former U.S. Navy facility in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as conducting takeoffs from Alaska.
However, there are those in Pima County who point out the pair convinced officials to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money on the basis for a balloon capsule idea that never made it off the ground, and could leave Pima County with an empty building.