Tucson-based firm hopes to take passengers 20 miles up into stratosphere, float back down

2014-04-21T00:00:00Z Tucson-based firm hopes to take passengers 20 miles up into stratosphere, float back downBy Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star

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

But first they need state lawmakers to clear the path.

The plan by Paragon Space Development Corporation 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, something he can’t do until Arizona law is amended to allow passengers engaged in space travel to waive their right to sue if something goes wrong.

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 heads Paragon’s World View Enterpises subsidiary that will operate the flights, said the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs what his company wants to do, requires that passengers be warned of the risks.

He said federal law makes sure that people who may be injured during space travel cannot sue the federal government.

But there is no similar immunity option for those who operate space tours. And without that, MacCallum said, he could not get the required insurance.

HB 2163, if it becomes law, takes care of that paperwork problem, but it still leaves the logistics.

MacCallum said his engineers looked at the model Richard Branson is pursuing with his plans for Virgin Galactic flights — jetting up to more than 60 miles, to a point of weightlessness, staying there for a few minutes, 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, which carries a pilot, a co-pilot who would also 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, 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, nonrefundable deposit — but also has the advantage of providing 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,” MacCallum said.

Plans are to launch the craft from Page, which he said is one of the best areas in the country from which to send up a high-altitude balloon.

The landing is a bit trickier.

MacCallum said his company has “pretty good models” of the air currents at that elevation, and said the plan is to launch a small weather balloon a few hours before the flight, which should lay out the trajectory the capsule would follow.

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

And with the parasail being steerable, he said, it’s not like a typical balloon that bumps down wherever it lands. How far the capsule might travel depends on the time of the year, he added.

“There could be days where we come right back to where we started. 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 were a question, the $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 said, laughing.

Paragon has already named former astronaut Mark Kelly as its director of flight crew operations. MacCallum said Kelly will be training other pilots, but for the moment, not piloting the capsule himself, because he currently lacks the necessary balloon experience.

Plans at this point are to begin commercial operations by sometime in 2016.

The 20-year-old company’s core business has focused on things like spacesuits and life-support for spacecraft, and even diving equipment for the Navy. But with interest in space travel waning, it is branching out.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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