Jane Poynter is joining the space-tourism race.
The part-time Las Vegas resident has opened a small office in downtown Las Vegas in support of World View Experience, a venture that by 2016 would tow tourists to the upper limits of the atmosphere by helium balloon.
The Las Vegas office eventually would be expanded into a sales office, but for now, it also doubles as a base from which to explore possible launch sites in Nevada.
World View was founded as an offshoot of Paragon Space Development, which was developed while Poynter was part of a two-year experiment living within Biosphere II, an Earth ecosystem research facility outside Tucson.
Although Poynter never received a university degree, her agricultural management skills led to her being sought to be a part of the Biosphere experience. While enclosed in the Biosphere ecosystem in the desert, Poynter had plenty of time to consider the goals of her company with a partner living with her and others “on the outside” that she never met but was in communication with.
“We founded Paragon with the idea that we wanted to be the company that develops the life-support systems to go to Mars,” Poynter said. “It was all about the challenge of interplanetary travel.”
From that, the idea of giving the public the opportunity to experience space with minimal risk was hatched. World View was born.
“It became offering the most life-changing experience you’ve ever had to lots of people,” she said.
Under the World View business model, six passengers would join two crewmembers in a pressurized space capsule suspended below a paraglider wing and a 300-foot balloon containing 15 million cubic feet of helium. In one possible experience scenario, Poynter said the balloon would be launched before sunrise and in 1 1/2 hours reach an elevation of more than 100,000 feet — nearly 20 miles high — where passengers would see a galaxy of stars and the curvature of the Earth.
In the two hours in the stratosphere, passengers could walk around the capsule, watch the sun rise, enjoy refreshments, communicate with friends and family on Earth or even conduct experiments. The craft will be on the fringe of space but not high enough for it to enter a weightless environment.
After that, the capsule and wing would be detached from the balloon and glide to a soft landing 45 minutes later. The company estimates that voyagers would land up to 300 miles from the launch point and would then be transported back.
The cost of the adventure: $75,000 a passenger.
Poynter said there are several advantages to her company’s helium balloon ride to space. It’s less expensive than other space tourism ventures and passengers won’t require any special training or extra equipment to make the trip.
She said it’s still too early to project whether Nevada would have a launch site, but she and her company’s leaders — including her husband, Taber MacCallum, the company’s chief technology officer, and former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly, who flew the space shuttle Endeavour’s final mission and is World View’s director of flight crew operations — are keeping their options open.
Another advantage to the high-altitude balloon trip is its safety features. Balloons have flown at high altitudes for decades. The pressurized capsule will have dual-paned windows, and the maneuverable wing is deployed for the entire flight. The capsule also has an emergency parachute system, and a ground crew can take control of the flight if necessary.
So why would a long-time Tucson resident originally from the Isle of Wight in England look to Las Vegas?
“With Las Vegas having this incredible center of high-end tourism — luxury tourism is flourishing here — it fits World View extremely well,” she said.
She said there’s a wealth of people who already understand the luxury travel industry, and she can tap their expertise.
The company set up an office downtown and the Vegas Tech Fund invested in the startup. That will give World View access to the tourism industry and the aeronautical companies that are bound to come to the state’s new Unmanned Aerial Vehicle test site and also puts World View within a short flight of the place Poynter views as the most promising launch site in the Southwest: Page, Ariz.
On the banks of Lake Powell in northern Arizona, Page has the most ideal weather patterns for balloon launches with the added bonus of being close to the Grand Canyon, a top tourism draw and a beautiful sight from the air.
In the months ahead, World View will scout other possible launch locations in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico as well as develop relationships within the resort corridor to search for prospective customers.
Would those customers be disappointed that this space launch is not a wild thrill ride that includes a zero-gravity experience?
Poynter doesn’t think so.
“What the rocket-based providers are doing is fantastic,” she said. “But it’s a very different experience. You’re going to be shaken, rattled and rolled all the way up and all the way down (on a rocket space trip). If what you’re going for is to really experience space, this is what you want. You want to go on our thing because that’s what you’re going to get.”
Besides, she said, if a customer is looking for a zero-gravity experience — the kind Sports Illustrated supermodel Kate Upton had in the magazine’s recent swimsuit edition — Poynter can arrange for that.
“That company flies out of Las Vegas once in awhile, and I can easily direct customers their way if they want that experience,” she said. “We are pretty committed to Vegas being at minimum a solid sales place for us. We’ll have a presence here no matter what.”