If Jane Poynter has her way, a regular person will be able to ride up to the edge of space quicker than they could take a commercial flight across the country—without the hassle of a lengthy security line.
Her company, World View Enterprises, is pioneering travel to the top of the atmosphere. The entire journey should take about four hours, no anti-gravity training required.
Sound crazy? Not to a new crop of entrepreneurs eyeing the final frontier of tourism. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic enterprise has been making headlines for several years. Yet while the thrill-seeking Branson pursues commercial flights on spaceships with rocket engines for the heart-stopping price tag of $200,000, World View’s plans are somewhat more modest.
That’s because the company isn’t aiming to turn average individuals into astronauts. Instead, World View is perfecting a sub-orbital flight to 100,000 feet (airplanes usually cruise at about 31,000) via a pressurized capsule pulled up by a high-altitude balloon and parafoil. The idea is to float up and glide back. It’s a gentler experience than a rocket launch in which astronauts are subject to 3g force—survivable, but not without special gear and training. "There will be a fully stocked bar," Poynter adds, laughing, "So you can get your beverage of choice." Vodka and Tang, perhaps?
Joking aside, World View is getting close to making this a reality. In June, the company successfully completed a scaled test flight (10% of the actual size) of a balloon and the company’s Parawing (patent pending). The journey broke the world record for highest parafoil flight when the balloon rose to 120,000 feet and came back down to 50,000 when it transitioned to the parafoil, validating the system the company plans to launch (couldn’t resist) to voyagers in 2016. Indeed, the company’s already booked its first reservations at $75,000 per seat.
"I am somebody driven by big ideas," Poynter asserts, "And space travel is huge." Poynter may sound brash, especially considering she’s not as familiar a face as Branson, but she’s been working on this in some form for more than 20 years.
A pivotal event for Poynter occurred when she was one of the eight researchers sealed into the Biosphere 2 for two years and 20 minutes. "It was one of the very first commercial space ventures," Poynter explains, because the sealed environment was created specifically to see if it could support human life elsewhere, not unlike being sealed in a spaceship and traveling through the universe.
A more moving realization dawned on Poynter from that experience. "We were really part of [that biosphere] viscerally and literally, completely dependent on plants for oxygen, drinking the same water, growing our own food really changed the perspective on world we live in," she says. Poynter likens that "a-ha moment" to ones she’s heard from astronauts who initially are intent on exploring space, but find themselves looking back at the Earth and are gobsmacked by the view of that small blue and white ball that is home. "It is that change in perspective that is firing the engines of this company," Poynter contends, "I want to give it back to people."
While she was in the Biosphere, Poynter and a fellow crew member Taber MacCallum began working on a business plan that would become Paragon Space Ventures. In a TED talk, Poynter frankly admits that many have been quick to criticize the Biosphere experiment as a failure because the oxygen levels dipped so low at one point that the crew suffered from sleep apnea and other health problems.
But Poynter and the others, like good entrepreneurs, took the failure and pivoted. The rapid iteration, to find the lost oxygen and regain the precious balance needed to sustain life, makes Poynter view the entire experiment as a success. Emerging and starting a business, even one that was bootstrapped with credit cards, "was kind of fun," she says.
Paragon Space Ventures was thoroughly informed by Poynter and MacCallum’s experience in that it provides design, building, testing, and operations for life support systems and thermal control products for astronauts, contaminated water divers, and extreme environment adventurers, and unmanned space applications, and has been in operation for 20 years.
"One of the exciting things about balloons from startup perspective is that they are low risk," she says, "The technology has been in use for decades." The challenge, she says, is that it really hasn’t changed much. "There’s room for enormous innovation," Poynter observes, "such as how we can make everything reusable." For this, World View has amassed a team of partners including former astronaut Mark Kelly who piloted a space shuttle multiple times, as well as United Parachute Technologies, Performance Designs, and other companies.
Still, sending curious citizens up to the edges of space with about as much preparation as it takes to board a commercial airplane and (not) pay attention to the safety instructions, seems a bit risky. Poynter asserts that both a family of four and a couple have reserved tickets for the eventual launch and admits, "It will take a while before we get to Disney," meaning that it won’t be affordable for the average Earthling for a while. "But its absolutely where we are heading." In the meantime, Poynter notes that the flight might be fun for a select group of experience-hungry tourists but World View isn’t planning to rely on that for revenue.
For instance, the test flight was the first voyage of World View’s Tycho vehicle. The reusable commercial craft has a full payload of applications including: communications, surveillance, and remote sensing which the company says offers low-cost access to near-space for researchers, private companies and government agencies.
Though she emphasizes her interest in advancing science through space travel, Poynter’s experience of the Biosphere, coupled with her work with various nonprofits, including Blue Marble Institute, has made her aware of the impact World View flights could have. She goes through a laundry list of the features that are reusable, such as the capsule and the parafoil but admits they haven’t done a full environmental study. "The amount of energy required is so much less [than a rocket]. It is so beautifully simple, as we move toward the reusability of the gas in the balloon, it will really reduce the impact to being negligible."
That’s a ways off, says Poynter: "It’s a hard thing to do and I’m not promising it in the next couple of years." She won’t share the costs of engineering or operating expense, stating only, "$75,00 per ticket is as low as we could get it." She has made it a personal goal to make sure student researchers can have access to rides.
Is she concerned that people having that much access to explore the outer limits will eventually trash space, the way we have say, on Everest? Not really, says Poynter. "If you are looking at all of these things from cosmic timescale, the Earth was trashed by life to begin with when bacteria came and completely transformed it," she explains. "We move into places where life isn’t and make it our own."
For Poynter, World View’s end game is as beautifully simple as the way it takes flight. Seeing the curve of the planet from that altitude will give ordinary folks a similar view to the one that’s held astronauts in thrall since the first manned space mission, one that she hopes will be transformative.
"They will see it for the very first time," she says, "as this biological entity that we inhabit and depend on."
[Renderings: courtesy of World View]