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Senate set to tackle space flight bill

Paragon Space Development Corp. capsule

Tucson-based Paragon Space Development Corp. hopes to use a capsule like this to float passengers high above where planes can go for a fee — and if it can get the required change in state law. (Photo courtesy of Paragon Space Development)

A Tucson firm is hoping to launch Arizonans toward the edge of space – or maybe somewhere close to that – from Southern Arizona.

Now they need state lawmakers to clear the path.

The plan by Paragon Space Development Corp. is to use a balloon to float passengers up 20 miles in a capsule, leave them there to ooh and aah at the view for about two hours and then parachute the whole mechanism back to earth. They could wind up 300 miles downrange, but would be flown back to the launch site.

Costs and logistics aside, company CEO and co-founder Taber MacCallum said he has another hurdle to overcome: Getting the required insurance. But he can’t do that until Arizona law is amended to spell out, in black and white, that passengers engaged in space travel can waive their right to sue if something goes wrong – and that such agreements are valid and enforceable in Arizona courts.

And a measure sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, to do just that, which already has cleared the House, is set for Senate debate on Monday.

MacCallum, who is heading up Paragon’s World View Enterprises subsidiary that will operate the flights, said the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs what his company wants to do, requires passengers be warned of the risks.

He said federal law made sure that those who were injured could not sue the federal government.

But there is nothing that spells out a similar option for immunity for those who operate space tours. And without that, MacCallum said he could not get the required insurance.

HB2163, if it becomes law, takes care of that paperwork problem.

That still leaves the logistics.

MacCallum said his engineers looked at the model that Richard Branson is pursuing with his plans for Virgin Galactic flights. That involves jetting up to over 60 miles, to a point of weightlessness, staying there for a few minutes, and then descending back to earth.

Reservations for that are being priced at $250,000.

MacCallum said his company’s alternative involves much simpler technology: Use a helium balloon to lift the capsule, carrying a pilot, a copilot who also will be in charge of “making sure the food’s good and the champagne’s flowing,” and six passengers. The balloon would take the capsule up to about 20 miles where it would float along with the winds and then disconnect from the balloon and glide back to earth with a parasail, essentially a steerable parachute.

That’s not only cheaper – initial reservations are being priced at $65,000 with a $5,000 non-refundable deposit – but has the advantage of giving the travelers a longer experience.

“We launch before dawn and get up to altitude, essentially floating on top of the earth’s atmosphere, and watch the sun rise from space, them meander over the terrain for a couple of hours and come back mid that day,” he said.

space02Plans are to launch the craft from Page. MacCallum said it turns out that’s one of the best areas in the country to launch a high-altitude balloon.

The where of coming back is a bit trickier.

MacCallum said his company has “pretty good models” of the air currents at that elevation. And he said the plan is to launch a small weather balloon a few hours before the flight.

That, he said, should lay out the trajectory the capsule will follow a bit later.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” MacCallum conceded. That’s why his company has arranged to have a series of potential landing sites all along the path from launch to potentially the furthest touchdown.

And with the parasail being steerable, he said, it’s not like a typical balloon that bumps down wherever it lands.

MacCallum said how far the capsule might travel depends on the time of the year.

“There could be days where we come right back to where we started,” he said. “And there certainly could be days when we’re 300 miles away.”

At that farthest point, he said, the cost of the trip includes airfare back to the launch point.

And, just in case there was a question, that $65,000 fare includes the campaign and munchies.

“That would just be cheesy to say, here you are at 100,000 feet, looking at the view, and, oh, that champagne will be $10,” he laughed.

Paragon already has named former astronaut Mark Kelly as its director of flight crew operations.

MacCallum said he will be training other pilots but, for the moment, not piloting the capsule himself because he lacks the necessary balloon experience. But MacCallum said that shouldn’t take long.

“He’s flown just about everything else,” he said of Kelly.

At this point, plans are to have commercial operations by sometime in 2016.

The plan for space travel is a bit of a departure from what has been the core business for the 20-year-old firm. But it’s not a huge leap.

He said Paragon started out working on things like life support for spacecraft as well as space suits and even diving equipment for the Navy.

But MacCallum said the national climate has changed and there’s less interest in space exploration.

“We don’t really have a mission right now,” he said. And then there’s what he called “the increasing chaos in Washington.”

“We thought we’d better find a way to diversify,” MacCallum explained, moving into business areas that are purely commercial and not dependent on government contracts. And that led the company to take a closer look at Branson’s privately funded push into space tourism — and if there were a different way of doing the same thing.

The needed legislation almost never got off the ground.

As originally crafted by company lobbyists, HB2163 spelled out, word for word, exactly what the liability waiver would say. It even got into petty details like the size of the type and the fact the waiver had to be signed by a “competent witness.”

That got the attention of Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert. Farnsworth, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee through which the legislation had to pass, didn’t like the idea at all.

“I don’t think government should be giving limited liability to private companies,” he said.

But Farnsworth said he also understands that, without legislative blessing for a waiver, there would be no insurance – and no space flight. So, he agreed to back off if the extensive measure was rewritten solely to authorize passengers to sign a waiver, with the state not involved in exactly how that should be crafted.

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