Former NASA astronaut joins World View as chief pilot

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WASHINGTON — Former NASA astronaut Ron Garan has joined high-altitude balloon company World View as its chief pilot, the company announced Feb. 23, making him the latest astronaut to seek a post-agency career in the commercial spaceflight field.

Garan, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot who spent nearly six months in space on two missions, will oversee flight operations for World View. The Tucson, Arizona-based company is developing balloons to take payloads, and eventually people, to altitudes of 30 kilometers or more, giving them at least some of the experience of a full-fledged space flight.

In an interview, Garan said he joined World View in large part because both he and the company have a goal of sharing the view from space with the public. “They are really aligned with the reason I left NASA in the first place, sharing this perspective of our planet,” he said.

Garan, who left NASA in 2013, later wrote a book on what he calls the “orbital perspective,” which he describes as a change in perceptions about the Earth created by seeing in from space, including a willingness to embrace global collaboration to deal with various problems. Garan is also working on a movie about the orbital perspective.

“I did all of that to kind of figuratively take people to the edge of space,” Garan said of his book and film projects. “Now, because of World View, I can literally take people there.”

In January, officials in Pima County, Arizona, which includes the city of Tucson, approved plans to construct a $15 million headquarters building for World View near the city’s airport. That facility, which will be completed late this year, will also including a pad that World View will use for launching its balloons.

World View currently flies smaller balloons to carry experiments into the stratosphere, but is working on a vehicle that can carry six passengers and two crew members to an altitude of about 30 kilometers for flights lasting a few hours. Those flights could begin as soon as the end of 2017, company officials recently said.

Garan said those flights, while lacking the altitude and duration of an orbital mission, should still give people an opportunity to experience the orbital perspective he felt during half a year in space. “They will see the sky turn from blue to black, and they’ll see the curvature of the Earth,” he said. “They’re going to have time to process the experience.”

Garan said his “all-encompassing” job includes developing plans and procedures for both uncrewed and crew flights of World View’s balloons, including flight manuals, checklists and other systems needed for safe operations. He will also pilot World View missions once the company starts taking people on stratospheric flights, although he said ultimately the company will have a “regular cadre of pilots” to handle them.

While Garan has experience with spacecraft and with F-16 fighter jets he flew prior to becoming an astronaut, he acknowledged ballooning is something new for him. He said he’s currently in a parachute training program to gain experience with parafoils, which World View’s capsule will use to descend back to Earth at the end of its balloon flight.

Garan is the latest former astronaut to join one of several companies working on commercial suborbital and orbital vehicles. While aerospace companies frequently hired astronauts after their NASA careers in the past, Garan and others are taking jobs that give them a chance of flying once again in space, or at least to the edge of space.

“The entire commercial spaceflight industry is poised to take off,” Garan said. “They’re all exciting, but this seemed like the best fit for me because of the philosophy of the company.”