World View HQ
The new headquarters of high-altitude ballooning company World View, with the concrete pad of Spaceport Tucson in the foreground. Credit: World View

WASHINGTON — Executives with World View, the Arizona-based high-altitude ballooning company that just moved into a new headquarters building, said they are not worried about a lawsuit that could void its existing lease agreement with a local government.

The company held a grand opening ceremony Feb. 23 for its 135,000-square-foot headquarters, located near Tucson International Airport. The building will serve as both the company’s headquarters and manufacturing facility for its high-altitude balloons. An adjacent concrete pad, known as Spaceport Tucson, will be a launch site for its balloons.

World View reached an agreement with Pima County, Arizona, for the facility. The county spent $15 million to construct the building, and World View signed a 20-year lease. The company is paying annual rents of $675,000 to $1.62 million under terms of the deal, which the county’s Board of Supervisors approved on a 4–1 vote in January 2016.

The Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative think tank, challenged the agreement in a local court last year. The organization argued that it violated state law that forbids counties from leasing land without first auctioning it to the highest bidder. It also claimed the deal violated a “gift clause” provision in the state constitution that prohibits local governments from providing any loan or grant to corporations, which the institute argued this lease agreement constituted.

The Goldwater Institute won the first round of the legal dispute Feb. 2, when the Pima County Superior Court ruled that the lease agreement violated state law and voided the deal. The Board of Supervisors subsequently voted to appeal the decision to a state appellate court.

World View itself is not a defendant in the suit, and during a media teleconference about the agreement, company officials said they were optimistic that the legal dispute would not affect the company’s operations. “We’re not parties to the lawsuit, so it’s honestly not been that much of a distraction to us,” said Jane Poynter, the chief executive of World View.

Should the county ultimately lose the suit, though, the company would have to renegotiate a lease deal and possibly pay significantly higher rents. “The county is free to renegotiate the lease, but only after they appraise the building, hold a public auction, and lease the building to the highest bidder,” said Jim Manley, senior attorney with the Goldwater Institute, in a statement earlier this month. “All of that will protect taxpayers from illegally subsidizing a private business.”

“We pretty much have a fair market lease with the county right now,” said Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer of World View, at the press briefing. “I’m sure there will be an equitable resolution if there is an issue. So it’s really not a significant concern.”

The company said that the new facility, custom-designed to meet the manufacturing and testing needs for its balloons, will help it carry out its plans to develop so-called “stratollites.” These are high-altitude balloons that can carry payloads into the stratosphere and stay over the same region for extended periods, changing altitudes to take advantage of shifting winds to maneuver. Those stratollites, the company believes, can carry out many services, including communications and remote sensing, more effectively and less expensively than satellites.

“Last year we were really focused on developing the technology of the stratollite. This year we’re really focused on now rolling out the demonstrations with very specific instruments,” said Poynter. That includes the first balloon flight from Spaceport Tucson in the next couple of months.

World View’s initially planned to get into the space tourism business by flying people into the stratosphere on their balloons, giving them a space-like view of the Earth without travelling into space itself. While that remains a long-term plan for the company, it is coy about when it will start carrying out such flights.

“When we understood this new opportunity that we have with stratollites, we actually thought that it was a really good strategy to use this as a way to really work on the entire technology suite for stratollites that, in fact, also applies to the human flight as well,” Poynter said. “We don’t have a published date when we’re flying” people, she added, but expected the company’s business to ultimately be evenly split between flying payloads and people.

Mark Kelly, the former astronaut who is the director of flight crew operations at World View, emphasized the importance of flying people so they can get a perspective of seeing the Earth from space, or least near space. “Seeing the Earth from that perspective is life-changing,” he said, recalling his first shuttle flight. “As a company, we are really looking forward to opening up that opportunity eventually to thousands of people around the world.”

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...