A Tucson firm is hoping to launch thrill-seekers toward the edge of space — or maybe somewhere close to that — from Arizona.
The company’s effort was boosted this week by a bill approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer.
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 couldn’t do that without having Arizona law 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.
HB2163, sponsored by Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, will do just that.
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 to 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 takes care of that paperwork problem, but 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, then meander over the terrain for a couple of hours and come back mid that day,” he said.
Plans 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 champagne 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, he is not piloting the capsule himself because he lacks the necessary balloon experience. But MacCallum said training Kelly and others 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.