WASHINGTON — Arizona officials approved a plan Jan. 19 to build a new headquarters and launch site for World View, a company developing high-altitude balloons for space tourism and other applications, keeping the company from moving out of state.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 4–1 to approve a proposal to spend $15 million on construction of a new headquarters and manufacturing facility for World View near Tucson International Airport. The proposal also includes development of an adjacent concrete pad for balloon launches, called Spaceport Tucson.

World View, currently headquartered in Tucson, plans to use the new facility to develop and fly high-altitude balloons that can travel more than 30 kilometers into the stratosphere, carrying research payloads and tourists. The new headquarters is expected to begin construction soon and be complete by late this year.

The company said it decided to remain in Tucson after weighing proposals from Florida and New Mexico to relocate near spaceports in those states. “They have amazing facilities and put some incredible offers on the table,” Jane Poynter, chief executive of World View, said in an interview. “We were really happy that Arizona stepped up and said that they wanted to keep World View here. Ultimately, it was a business decision.”

World View will lease the building from the county for 20 years, paying from $675,000 to $1.62 million per year in rent, according to county documents about the agreement. The company agreed to grow its workforce from a current level of 25 employees to more than 400 in five years.

One member of the county board voted against the deal after a 90-minute debate, citing a lack of information about World View’s business plan and finances, and the potential risk to the county should the company not grow as expected. Supervisor Ally Miller said she opposed “approving this contract today without performing the due diligence that the voters deserve.”

World View is currently developing a vehicle designed to carry six passengers and two crewmembers to altitudes of about 30 kilometers under a balloon. The vehicle would remain at that altitude for two hours before gliding back to Earth under a parawing. The first flight of that vehicle should take place by the end of 2017, Poynter said.

World View Oct 2015 balloon test
A view of the Grand Canyon taken from an altitude of approximately 30 kilometers on a World View balloon test flight in October 2015. The company hopes such views will entice customers to purchase $75,000 tickets for commercial flights starting in 2017. Credit: World View

While that altitude falls fall short of commonly accepted definitions of space, which range from 80 to 100 kilometers, the company has argued that the trips will have many attributes of a spaceflight, from the view of the Earth to the use of a pressurized capsule similar to what would be needed for an orbital flight.

In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, at the request of World View, determined that since the company’s vehicle is designed to operate in outer space environments, its flights needed to be licensed as commercial launches. Spaceport Tucson will also require an FAA spaceport license for those crewed balloon flights, which the company said it is working with the county to obtain.

The facility’s location near Tucson’s airport and an Air Force base doesn’t pose a major issue to balloon flights. Taber MacCallum, World View’s chief technology officer, said tight controls on the airspace because of those airports work to his company’s advantage, since air traffic in the area is closely monitored.

“We can launch into very well controlled airspace,” he said. “Because we go straight up, we’re really not that much of a disturbance.”

While World View is best known for its crewed vehicle work, the company is also using its high altitude balloon technology for research and other applications. The company is currently flying research payloads for NASA under a contract with the agency’s Flight Opportunities program awarded in 2014.

Company executives said they’re exploring other applications of their high-altitude balloons, including communications and remote sensing, with government and commercial customers. “There’s an awful lot of things we can do with this,” Poynter said. “To some degree, anything that you can do with a satellite, we can do with these balloons.”

World View also sees the deal as a sign that local officials want to develop a commercial space industry in the region. “We’re happy to see the governance here realizing that commercial space is an industry that they want to have in our community,” MacCallum said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...