TUCSON – Democratic U.S. Senatorial Candidate Mark Kelly has recently come under attack because of Chinese investment in World View Enterprises, the Tucson-based aerospace company where he was formerly employed.
News of investments by Tencent, a wealthy Internet conglomerate closely associated with the Communist Chinese government, was revealed in May by RealClearPolitics, a conservative new site.
The amount of funding by Tencent Holding Limited, whose CEO is the richest man in China, has not been released to the public.
Arizona Daily Independent has learned that Kelly, a former NASA astronaut, was working for World View at the time that the company’s CEO went to Beijing to obtain funding for the company.
Kelly was named “director of flight crew operations” in December 2013, according to a July 2014 Wired magazine article. That article said that the company planned to “bring tourists on a balloon ride to the middle of the stratosphere by 2016.”
World View’s founding CEO, Jane Poynter, was a “personal friend” of Kelly’s at the time of his hiring, the Wired story said.
The Xinhua News Agency, the news service of the People’s Republic of China, published a story in November 2014, in which it was revealed that Tencent was funding World View.
“Jane Poynter, co-founder and chief executive officer of Tucson, Arizona-based World View Enterprises Inc., said in Beijing on Nov. 7 that her company has received another round of investment, including from Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd.,” the XNA story said.
It was later revealed that this round of investment was for $7.1 million.
In the Chinese news agency’s story, Poynter is quoted as saying that David Wallerstein, chairman of Tencent USA, “has already met with one of World View’s pilots and exchanged ideas on technology.”
In April 2016, World View announced it raised $15 million, in a second round of investments, which included Tencent and three venture capital firms, said an article by techcrunch.com.
It is not clear how much of the total of $22.1 million was invested by Tencent.
Kelly’s U.S. Senate campaign has received $5,000 from Wallerstein, who is “responsible for (Tencent’s) operations outside mainland China and overseeing business initiatives with multinational partners,” said the RealClearPolitics article.
World View has also received millions of dollars of assistance from Pima County, including a building constructed for the company in 2016.
Kelly left the firm in February 2019, when he began his campaign for the seat now held by Sen. Martha McSally. He holds a stock investment in the firm of about $200,000, according to his Senate campaign financial disclosure statement.
Poynter and her co-founder and husband, Taber MacCallum, left their former company, Paragon Space Development Corp., at about the same time Poynter was obtaining funding from Tencent in Beijing.
Poynter and MacCallum left their posts at Paragon “to pursue a space tourism business that will lift paying guests into the stratosphere with an enormous helium-filled balloon,” said an Arizona Star story with a Nov. 9, 2014 dateline.
The story said that Paragon had announced the departure of two of its founders — Poynter, the Paragon president, and MacCallum, its CEO – the previous week.
When Poynter later appeared at a Pima County Board meeting — to obtain a $14.5 million investment package from the county — Supervisor Ally Miller inquired about their investors and their business plan.
But they did not reveal anything about any financial information – which is unheard of at a public meeting at which a huge amount of taxpayer money is on the agenda.
“You said you have these institutional investors from Europe and the United States and they expect a very high rate of return,” Miller told Poynter and MacCallum, referring to Poynter’s earlier statements. “I’d like to look at your business plans on behalf of the taxpayers and we did not get it.”
Miller said she was frustrated because a contract had already been signed with the county the previous month — which was done without her knowledge during a process that lasted six to nine months — and there was no information on their investors or financial data on their web site.
“If you have a business plan, I would love to look at it, even right now,” Miller said to Poynter and MacCallum, as they stood facing the board, in front of a gallery packed with area residents. “Do you have it with you?”
“We don’t have it with us,” Poynter replied. “We would be happy to set up a meeting with you.” No meeting ever occurred.
Miller did not know at that time that a company closely connected to the Chinese Communist government had invested in World View.
Miller said she did not know anything about the Chinese investments in World View until she read recent news reports.
“It wasn’t until those recent articles came out in May, that’s when I found out they had Chinese investment,” Miller said. “None of the other supervisors were aware of that, as far as I know.”
Tencent reports to communist government
Tencent, which is known as a surveillance arm of the Chinese government, operates WeChat social media app, with more than one billion users. WeChat, which is used by many people in the United States, monitors foreign users, in order to censor and control Chinese citizens, said a recent Wall Street Journal story.
Tencent Holding’s CEO, Ma Huateng – also known as Pony Ma — is the wealthiest man in China, with a fortune of $62.2 billion.
FBI Director Christopher Wray delivered a scathing rebuke to the Chinese government on June 24, in which he called it the biggest threat to the United States, while revealing there were 2,000 active espionage investigations involving that regime.
“There’s no country that presents a broader and more comprehensive threat to America’s innovation, to our economic security and to our democratic ideas,” Wray said during an interview on Fox News.
Wray said China’s economic espionage campaign relied on businessmen, advanced scientists and senior-level academics to steal confidential information and innovation to take back to China.
The former head of Harvard University’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, Charles Lieber, was indicted June 9 on two counts of making false statements, said a Department of Justice news release. Lieber allegedly lied about his involvement as a “strategic scientist” for China, which brought him $50,000 per month, living expenses of about $150,000, and more than $1.5 million to establish a laboratory in Wuhan, China. He had never disclosed the investments the Chinese government had made in him.
A new business plan of spying from above
World View, which has been under new leadership since 2019, has moved on from its stratospheric tourist business phase to a new phase — which would tend to ring alarm bells on national security concerns regarding any firm that has received investment capital from China.
The company is no longer selling tickets to fly into the stratosphere in balloons.
Instead it is offering services to surveil the Earth. World View is now advertising unique opportunities to observe places on the Earth from high above its surface.
“World View is in the process of effecting a transition of our business from a purely flight services model to providing data and information services from our unique, lighter than air, stratospheric platforms,” World View’s web site says.
The web site’s ensuing paragraph, which purports to explain World View’s “vision” is as crystal clear as an Alaska blizzard at midnight.
“This transition ensures that we achieve our vision of leading the emerging stratospheric economy through the provision of imagery and data analytics services that provide new knowledge and enable better decision making. Our full, flight services portfolio, including the very unique experience we call Voyager, will continue to be a part of the future planning within World View while we focus our near-term attention on our unmanned, stratospheric data and information services. This new vision for World View is best expressed in our “Why” statement, which defines the purpose and focus of our organization.”
In plain English, World View plans to make a ton of money from spying from above.
And why will their stratospheric balloons bring in enormous paydays? Because World View claims that its balloons can remain in one place for lengthy periods of time, unlike satellites. Therefore its customers can spy on anyone their paying customers choose for lengthy periods of time.
“Our next generation offering provides longer persistent loitering times, enhanced payload capabilities, and an ultra-powerful, high band-width downlink,” the web site says, referring to their “Stratollite” balloons, which have not been “released” yet. The company claims that its balloons have achieved an altitude of almost 29 miles. The starting line of outer space is defined at 62 miles above sea level. (emphasis added)
“Our Stratollites enable unique perspectives for commercial and government customers to perceive, interpret, and act on critical sensor data to gain deeper strategic insights,” the web site says. (emphasis added)
So why would a company such as Tencent, which is known to spy on Americans and others through its WeChat app, be interested in a company that is dedicated to spying from the sky? And whose idea was it to make the transition from a failed stratospheric tourist agency to launch a spy-in-the-sky business?
Kelly in China
China has a special place in Kelly’s heart.
That was where the former astronaut met Gabby Giffords, then a 33-year-old single Arizona state senator.
Kelly, then a 39-year-old married man with two daughters, was on a 2003 trip to China at the invitation of the National Committee on United States-China relations, a group founded in 1966 to improve relations between the two nations.
They became closer friends during a 2004 reunion of Americans and Chinese nationals in Arizona, which Giffords had planned. Kelly’s divorce had just been finalized two days earlier than the reunions, according to their book, “Gabby, A story of courage and hope.” This book, which lists Giffords and Kelly as co-authors, was written after the tragic 2011 Tucson incident in which Giffords was severely injured and six people were killed.
In 2005 Kelly and Giffords returned to China together. There is a color photograph of the couple, taken at the Great Wall of China, during that return trip. Giffords was still serving in the Arizona Senate. Later that year she would resign from that position to run for Congress. Kelly and Giffords were married on Nov. 10, 2007, one year after she won her first term in Congress. She was representing the state’s 8th Congressional District during her second term when she was gunned down.
Although Kelly’s involvement with World View Enterprises apparently ended when he began to campaign for the U.S. Senate seat, his involvement with the company needs to be understood in terms of his competence to hold office.
World View never lived up to its promise to send tourists high above the Earth, although it did collect deposits on those flights. It is not clear if refunds were issued for those non-existent flights.
World View became the laughingstock of Arizona in December 2017, when a hydrogen-filled balloon exploded, on its launch pad just south of Tucson International Airport. The explosion rocked nearby buildings – causing hearing damage to some employees and terrifying others who ran out of buildings, because they thought a bomb had exploded. Ceiling tiles fell in the nearby Raytheon facility.
More than $475,000 worth of damage was done to the World View headquarters building. That county-owned building was constructed for World View, which holds a 20-year lease. The company’s insurance company covered the cost of repairs.
The World View facility was built on land that was purchased in 2012 by the county as part of a buffer zone for Raytheon, a defense contractor which is the largest private employer in Tucson, with about 13,000 employees. Missiles were stored on the property. The 382-acre buffer zone – just over half a square mile – was designed to boost Raytheon’s economic activity in Tucson.
As part of an economic development agreement Pima County made with Raytheon in November 2016, the research park where Raytheon and World View were housed would not contain any buildings “40 feet above ground level or have any elevated activities with extended lines of sight into the Raytheon Facility.”
Also prohibited from this research park by this agreement — built on property originally intended to protect Raytheon from any security breaches or safety hazards — was any business or corporation that was owned by a foreign, non-NATO country.
As of this writing, it is not clear who holds majority ownership of World View. The People’s Republic of China is not a member of NATO.