World View stratollite
A World View stratospheric balloon, or "stratollite," is prepared for launch from the company's Tucson, Arizona, headquarters in October 2017. Credit: World View

WASHINGTON — World View, the stratospheric ballooning company, has put on hold new business initiatives and furloughed some staff because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The company, which has developed a high-altitude balloon platform called Stratollite intended to provide remote sensing and other services traditionally provided by spacecraft, announced in March it would start flying a series of its balloons in an “orbit” or “racetrack” over parts of North and Central America. The company envisioned a series of Stratollites flying in that orbit, providing imagery with a resolution as sharp as 5 centimeters, far better than satellites can offer.

“This is really our coming out time” after years of development, said Tom Pirrone, senior vice president of business development at World View, during a briefing about the company’s plans March 3 during the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Broomfield, Colorado. “This is a high-margin, very profitable business.”

At the time, World View expected to start flying Stratollites in that racetrack in the summer, gradually building up to as many as 20 at a time. Those plans, though, are now on hold as the company hunkers down during the pandemic.

“We’re having to delay our go-to-market activities,” Ryan Hartman, chief executive of the company, said in an April 13 interview. “The delay is impacting us by months, not years.”

World View is based in Tucson, Arizona, which is among the states with stay-at-home orders closing nonessential businesses. “We are a manufacturing business,” he said, so such orders are “impactful” to the business.

Hartman said the company has taken steps to conserve funding, including furloughing some employees last week. He declined to say how many employees were furloughed. “Having to furlough any of them has been a difficult decision and a painful process to go through,” he said. “We’re working hard every day to take the steps necessary to recall them as quickly as possible.”

“We’re really focused on the survivability of the company,” he said. “We have sized the team to be able to create a cash runway for ourselves that ensures our survivability and maintains the core competencies of the business.”

World View is among the many companies that have turned to support from the federal government in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Administration, which provides loans to small businesses to prevent layoffs. The loans will be forgiven if employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the funds used for payroll, rent or utilities.

Like many companies, Hartman said World View ran into difficulties applying for a loan through the program. “The rollout has not been as smooth as any of us would have liked,” he said. The company did apply and is now in a “wait-and-see mode” about its application.

World View has also gotten local relief, he said, in the form of a rent deferment from Pima County, Arizona, which built the facility and leases it to the company as part of an economic incentive package in 2016.

Hartman said the company, like many others in the aerospace industry, is looking for ways to leverage its capabilities to support coronavirus relief efforts. That includes potentially using balloon manufacturing equipment to make medical tents that can be used to triage patients, as well as producing masks and gowns. “We’re just trying to do our part using our core competencies,” he said.

World View is not the only company in the aerospace sector that has had to furlough or lay off employees because of the pandemic. Bigelow Aerospace announced March 23 it laid off all its employees, estimated to be nearly 70 at the time, because of a state order in Nevada closing nonessential businesses. OneWeb Satellites, the joint venture between Airbus and OneWeb, said March 30 it was laying off an unspecified number of employees, a move that came days after OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Other aerospace companies, though, have escaped layoffs because they are deemed essential by the federal government, exempting them from closure orders. Some are continuing to hire employees. Blue Origin tweeted April 16 that it is hiring about 20 people a week, with more than 500 job openings across the company’s facilities.

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...