Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum hatched their first business plan more than 20 years ago while they and six crewmates were sealed inside the experimental Biosphere 2 research complex. The company, Paragon Space Development Corp., turned out to be just the first of several joint ventures for the pair — including marriage.
Poynter and MacCallum’s most recent project is World View, a balloon-launched ride to the middle of the stratosphere. With commercial flight services slated to begin in about three years, World View in December began accepting deposits for the $75,000 ride.
The couple recently spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Irene Klotz.
How did you come up with the idea of selling balloon rides to the edge of space?
MacCallum: Ballooning has been around for a long time. There were flights in the late 1950s with people in a pressurized capsule under balloon to this altitude. That was the very beginning of the whole field of spaceflight life support, space medicine and space physiology. It was the beginning of the American Space Age.
The company Jane and I founded 20 years ago specializes in life support and that’s a real significant part of the history of this field. I grew up seeing these large balloons launch because my father did gamma-ray astronomy with these very high altitude balloons, taking telescopes to the edge of space. This has sort of been in my DNA for a long time.
What pushed us over the edge was really seeing that there is a market. Virgin Galactic and others have demonstrated that there is a market for experience. We then looked at what’s happening with the whole luxury market and seeing this shift from luxury goods to high-end experiences. We found that we could put together a business plan that could close in on a ticket price that is not too different from other luxury experiences, like a high-end safari, things like that. It just seemed like the time is right.
Poynter: One motivation is being able to give a transformational experience to people. It’s something the astronauts talk about a lot, this overview effect, this real “ah-ha” moment when they really see the Earth from space.
Taber and I were able to experience something like that from inside Biosphere 2, only we sort of had it from the opposite end of the spectrum. We experienced the biosphere that we all live in from the inside out, where we were exchanging carbon and oxygen with the plants around us. We were very literally part of the biosphere that we live in.
We have to ask ourselves can you actually give this sort of transformational experience to people in just an hour or two, and we have pretty strong evidence that you can.
What’s the status of the program?
MacCallum: We’ve been doing some subsystem testing and we’re doing some scale flight work. The next step is to get off a full flight regime on a subscale system — do the launch, float, landing series, so that we make sure we have all the aerodynamics correct.
How is the system you’re developing different from what’s flown in the past?
Poynter: We’re going to be injecting new technologies into it, such as the power wing. It’s essentially a parafoil that is predeployed, so it’s out the entire time. It provides added safety because you can effectively glide the vehicle back down to the ground from any altitude.
How many people can fly at once?
Poynter: The capsule can hold eight people. We’re planning two crew initially and six passengers. It can be controlled from the ground, so we will eventually go to one crew with the backup being on the ground.
In the first year, we’re planning not to fly by market demands, but by our own flight regime, which will be no more than 50 flights in the first year.
Where will you fly from?
Poynter: I think we’re going to end up with a number of different locations that we launch from depending on the time of year and the weather in those areas for that time of year. The way we’re designing the launch systems we won’t be needing a huge amount of big facilities on the ground. We’re really designing it to be highly flexible. We’ll be moving it from one location to another around the year on an annual cycle probably.
And where will the subscale test flights take place?
MacCallum: Probably in Arizona, potentially Page. It’s a town right next to the Grand Canyon which, for some interesting mix of geology reasons, has amazing weather patterns for launching balloons and also an incredible view of the Grand Canyon. It’s a place that we’re looking at for commercial flights so the more experience we get there, the better.
How high will the capsule fly?
Poynter: We’re anticipating our normal flight to be around 30,000 meters. What people really want when they’re going up to space is to see that view. That’s the primary motivation for a lot of people. The capsule has a lot of window.
How much is it costing to put this venture together?
Poynter: I don’t want to go into too many details, but it’s significantly less than if we had to do a rocket-based venture. The technology has been around, so for a development program it’s a lot more straightforward. We’re doing these subscale tests to really validate aspects of the architecture, particularly the power wing and its operation at high altitude where you have a very thin atmosphere, almost no atmosphere.
We anticipate it being really pretty affordable for the investors as well. We have the current development phase financed, which is on the order of millions.
When do you anticipate commercial flights beginning?
Poynter: No earlier than near the end of 2016. That’s a relatively sporting schedule.
What will it be like inside the capsule?
MacCallum: We’re really seeing this as the highest-end luxury experience you can imagine — your friend of choice sitting next to you, whatever great food you want to have along the way. This is really meant to be an incredibly comfortable experience. No more jostling than you would expect from a commercial airliner or a hot air balloon. There is potentially a period of low gravity as we transition from the balloon to the parawing at the end of the flight. We keep that as steady as possible.
It’s about an hour and a half to two hours from launch to get up to altitude, then two to three hours at altitude is what we think will be the right duration, and then it takes about 20 to 25 minutes to get back down to a landing site. The whole experience is a day. One of the things we’re looking at is launching at night so that you get up to altitude and then see dawn from the edge of space, really see that whole transformation of the ground below. You see the terminator — the edge of sunlight — move along the Earth below you.
Poynter: We’ll be in a spacecraft and like any spacecraft it will be somewhat mass-limited, but we do want to keep this as spacious as possible. We hope to keep it so that people can stand up in the middle of this and move around.
Of course, we’ll have a bar or a galley and amenities.
What will the interior be like?
MacCallum: Like an airline interior.
What’s involved in flying and landing?
Poynter: The power wing is navigable, so the pilots will be flying that back down to the ground.
So you basically ride up under a balloon and glide back under a parafoil wing?
Poynter: Yes, exactly.
What are the risks?
MacCallum: Probably the biggest risk is that to get to these altitudes, the balloon needs to have about the same structural factor of safety as a rocket, about 1.4. So there is a chance — and every once in a while you see — a balloon failure. That’s really what took us to having this parawing or parafoil always open so that from just about any altitude the vehicle could safely glide back.
We also are planning a static launch, which means the balloon is fully straight up and inspected before releasing the vehicle. In those cases, you know you have enough lift to get up to an altitude from which the parawing can bring you safely back. A lot of the early effort has been to make sure that we don’t have a phase of the flight that would be dangerous.
The balloon you’re under is the thickness of a dry-cleaner bag. It’s very thin material by necessity to get you so high. That’s where some of the technical risk lies. The risks of decompression of the spacecraft, or life-support system failures, are really pretty small. We have lots of redundant systems and we can return to lower altitudes pretty quickly.
Poynter: Even though balloon failures have on occasion occurred, they don’t just catastrophically fail. It’s sort of like a slow losing of altitude.
How big a balloon are you talking about needing?
Poynter: Largest! Awesome. Something on the order of 40 million cubic feet.
Because you are using an established technology, what would prevent other companies from saying, “Oh, I’m going to do that too?” How concerned are you about losing your market share even before it gains a toehold?
MacCallum: I think we have some advantages in that the parawing is patent-pending, our launch system is patent-pending, some of our life-support technology is patented, so I think it will be hard for people to catch up with. To a large degree this also is a lot about execution and really developing safe, routine operations. It’s going to be a matter of out-executing somebody who also wants to do this.
There is a competitor in a company called Zero2Infinity in Spain. We don’t know much about them, so we’re not exclusive in this market.
You said that part of the impetus for this project was seeing the success that Virgin Galactic has had signing up customers for a ride that costs on the order of a quarter of a million dollars. Virgin has extremely widespread name recognition and branding. I’m wondering what you can do to make people feel comfortable with not only spending $75,000 but also trusting their lives and their time with a company that is not as well known as Virgin.
Poynter: I think Richard Branson has done an amazing job. There’s no question about it. We’re incredibly lucky that he’s done that. Frankly, we’re able to do World View because of what he’s done. He has brought such a huge spotlight to this whole world of spaceflight. I think he has made it acceptable, and for that we’re incredibly grateful.
I view this as an opportunity to work within what he’s already developed. I’ve had an incredible response from people because we are so differentiated from what rocket-based flight is doing. It’s so completely different.
MacCallum: I don’t think anyone can compete with Branson in marketing prowess or the great Virgin brand. This is going to be about offering an experience that people who are interested in space want to have. In the end for it to be a sustainable business, it really has to be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.