This Company Wants to Send You to the Stratosphere in a Balloon
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The chicken sandwich has to get to space.
This is what everyone at World View Enterprises Inc. was thinking as they set to work in the predawn hours of June 29, 2017, at the Page Municipal Airport in Arizona. KFC Corp. had hired World View, a maker of high-altitude balloons, to ferry a Zinger, which consists of a spicy breaded chicken fillet topped with lettuce and a little mayonnaise on a sesame seed bun, through the upper reaches of the atmosphere and into the heavens. The publicity stunt would result in glorious images of the sandwich set against the stark black backdrop of space, and it would announce World View and its balloons to the paying public. “At first we thought it might not be a good idea,” says Andrew Antonio, director for business development at World View. “People would think we’re the chicken sandwich company, and that would be really bad. But we were just starting out, and ultimately this seemed like the perfect opportunity to use millions of dollars in KFC’s ad budget to tell our story.”
The Zinger launch preparations were intense. In the months leading up to the flight, nondisclosure agreements were put in place and signed. Rob Lowe was hired as a spokesman. A team of engineers built a solar-powered, animatronic KFC bucket that could tweet, take selfies, and house the sandwich beneath a protective glass dome. Zingers were tested in thermal vacuum chambers to see how they would react to pressure and temperature extremes. Then, just ahead of the launch, a group of food artists took over a local KFC and cooked dozens of Zingers, coating them with strange substances to make them beautiful. The Zingers were lined up and judged like pageant participants, and one was finally anointed the hero sandwich, the one with the fowl charisma and fast-food fortitude to brave the rigors of space in the name of over-the-top marketing.
On launch day, the World View team attached the Zinger payload to the end of a long strip of polyethylene laid out on the tarmac. Against a desert backdrop of thirsty grasslands and burnt-orange plateaus, the plastic slowly filled with helium and started to take the shape of a massive teardrop. Lowe, doing his voice-over work, went through a countdown sequence. “Stand by to give status report when called. Launch systems? Aerodynamic descent systems? Balloon systems? Digestive systems? Roger, we are a go for launch for the Zinger 1 bucket satellite.” And up the Zinger went, to 67,143 feet, streaming video as it rose. Did it make it all the way to space? Not quite. Did it stay up for only 17 of the planned 96 hours? Yes. But who cares? KFC got its ad campaign, and World View got a heck of a lot more than that.
Founded in 2012, World View had only ever flown its balloons, called Stratollites, for a few hours in one go. The chicken sandwich mission represented its maiden voyage toward something more significant—a time when its balloons could sail the winds of the stratosphere for thousands of miles and then hover over a point on Earth for days or even months. The KFC test helped fund research and development around the Stratollite’s avionics systems, solar panels, and communications. In the year that’s followed, World View’s researchers have come up with techniques to build durable balloons and software and sensors that exploit previously unknown nuances of the stratosphere. The company has also raised $42 million from venture capitalists hoping it will alter the way we take images of Earth, predict the weather, and, one day, get tourists into space.
“Balloons have been around for decades but have never really been used in a way where there is navigational control,” says Jane Poynter, World View’s co-founder and chief executive officer. “Our rather genius engineers have figured the winds in the stratosphere out.”
The history of high-altitude balloons goes back to the late 18th century, when the French, in particular, demonstrated a gift for releasing huge volumes of hot air into casings of rubberized silk that would float up into the skies. One of the first flights took place in 1783, with a sheep, a duck, and a rooster hovering for 8 minutes at 1,500 feet over Versailles. Not long after that, humans decided to attach themselves to the things, giving the public and militaries around the globe a new frontier to explore—and a new way to look at their home.
Things really started to get interesting in the middle of the 20th century, as a series of adventurous, brilliant, foolish people decided to see exactly how high balloons could go and what a human body hanging beneath them could take. The U.S. and Russia took to endurance ballooning with the same competitive fervor they would later display with rocketry. Without some protection, people tend to lose consciousness from oxygen deprivation at 50,000 feet, and bodily fluids boil at 63,000 feet, but these factors were apparently only mild deterrents. Individuals were initially crammed into tiny, crude gondolas with often untested safety systems. Many of the results were as expected, with people passing out during their journeys, freezing, and generally being tortured for hours or days—that is, when they didn’t die.
One of the great heroes of this era was Joe Kittinger, a pilot in the U.S. Air Force. He was the kind of guy willing to have a rectal thermometer inside him for 48 hours, or chew his way out of a safety harness—yes, these things happened—if that’s what it took to get his ballooning job done. In 1957 he was packed into a gondola beneath a balloon for a mission dubbed Manhigh. Despite a major mishap with his oxygen supply system, Kittinger set a record by rising to 96,000 feet. In 1960 he topped himself by going to 102,800 feet and then jumping out of his gondola. He dropped for four and a half minutes before engaging his parachute, reaching 614 miles per hour at one point, and repeated the same words over and over as he neared the ground: “Thank you, God. Thank you.”
As the space race heated up, interest in ballooning waned. Great advances had been made in gondolas, safety systems, and balloon materials, and much of this technology would aid astronauts. The public, however, was no longer as moved by ballooning feats, and the militaries of the U.S., Europe, Russia, and Japan invested their time and money elsewhere. Tourists still dabbled with hot air balloons, and high-altitude balloons continued to be used as scientific instruments, but Kittinger’s altitude record held until the turn of this decade, when two risk takers decided to put their lives on the line.
Red Bull GmbH, naturally, was involved in the first attempt to best Kittinger, because nothing says “energy drinks are cool” like sending someone plummeting to his possible death at high speed. It sponsored the daredevil Felix Baumgartner in his 2012 jump from a helium-filled balloon at 128,000 feet.
In 2014, Alan Eustace, a computer scientist who was then a senior vice president at Google, tried to top Baumgartner. Eustace saw the feat as an engineering challenge. “It made no sense to build a giant capsule or gondola,” he says. “They had caused more problems than they had solved.” (People had died after hitting their gondolas during jump attempts.) He chose to dangle from the end of a balloon wearing a pressurized suit before being dropped from 135,908 feet, basically the edge of space. Many of the key people who made the life-sustaining suit and other technology possible would go on to become the core team at World View.
From Mojave, Calif., to Midland, Texas, it’s fashionable these days for scrubby Southwestern locales to have spaceports. Not the kind of city to be left out, Tucson erected Spaceport Tucson in late 2016, part of a $15 million incentive package meant to keep World View in town. The 142,000-square-foot office and manufacturing facility and accompanying 700-foot launch pad abut Tucson’s international airport, ringed by mountains, cactus, and miles of ruddy desert.
Compared with flying humans and sandwiches, World View’s most immediate, commercial mission is somewhat prosaic. It offers customers the ability to fly cargo weighing from 100 pounds to 20,000 pounds as high as 19 miles into the stratosphere, where it can hang out—or “station keep,” in balloon lingo—for days, weeks, or months. Some of the earliest customers have been governments and companies looking to take precise pictures of a specific location. Satellites and drones can do this type of work, but World View has time, precision, and cost advantages. “Over time, we operate for less than a 10th the cost of a drone,” says Taber MacCallum, co-founder and chief technology officer of World View. “We’re solar-powered and mostly autonomous and just sit there at this high altitude looking down.”
Because World View can affix all manner of objects to the end of a balloon, it can do more than take spy photos. Scientists can send up complex measurement systems. Militaries and aid organizations can position communications systems to provide internet and phone services in remote locations. And weather forecasters can place instruments directly into interesting spots. “We are jonesing to get one of these things into a hurricane and see if we can stabilize in the eye,” MacCallum says. The company’s long-term goal is to have dozens of balloons flying in shifts all around the world, reporting back and building the most detailed view ever of the world’s weather.
Until recently, the prevailing wisdom among balloon aficionados was that these types of missions weren’t possible. People believed the stratosphere had billowing, jet stream-like winds that flowed in one direction and would shove a high-altitude balloon around too much for it to stay in one place long enough to do anything useful. But, through much trial and error, companies such as World View and Loon LLC have discovered new facets to the stratosphere. Crucially, World View found that at the right heights, there are crisscrossing winds. This makes it possible for a balloon to remain relatively stationary by, in effect, flying in a figure-eightish pattern, bobbing up and down. “The circle you rotate around is five miles in diameter,” Poynter says. “You go up a bit and down a bit, and find these winds that take you around and around.”
On a November morning at about 3 a.m., World View’s engineers and technicians begin showing up for a launch at Spaceport Tucson. They’re months past the Zinger extravaganza and are setting out to put up a military imaging system and fly it from Arizona to Mexico, where it will hang out for a few hours before coming back for a landing. It’s the desert, so the air is cold and crisp as they begin setting up fueling tanks, communications gear, and calibration equipment beneath three floodlight towers aimed at the pad.
The first step of a launch involves carting a folded balloon out to the pad and unfurling it. A car drives very slowly for 30 minutes, spreading the long stream of polyethylene across the ground. At the base is a white case called a stratocraft, which looks like a pyramid with its top cut off; it holds the payload. Next up the line are some solar panels, and then a yellow tube that carries helium to the balloon. A couple of men connect large, cylindrical guns to the base of the balloon and begin pumping in the gas. As the tip of the balloon fills, the big plastic snake stands up like a 400-foot-tall cobra.
MacCallum paces around the launch pad. Like a rocket launch, a balloon launch comes with a mix of tedium and tension—so many things must be checked and rechecked. The procedure manual for this mission runs 118 pages. There’s the wind to worry about and, of course, the safety of the people on the ground.
The actual event, though, is nothing like the percussive, soul-tingling blast of a rocket catching fire and roaring against the chains of gravity. It takes 90 minutes to fill the balloon, at which point there’s a mild jolt as the full tension of the thing travels up to the top and back again. Then the helium hoses are detached and the balloon jumps into the air like an excited jellyfish. Once it picks up speed, it floats up at 1,000 feet per minute and will take 75 minutes to get to a working altitude.
“It’s pretty graceful and always seems miraculous to me,” MacCallum says. Engineers use telescopes to watch the balloon’s ascent and check for any problems or, God forbid, leaks. None of this is subtle. Anyone near the airport can see the giant plastic mass making its way up. “I will get at least three UFO spotting calls today,” Antonio says.
In mission control, seven people track the balloon’s path and help steer it via software. The amount of helium stays fixed, but ballast controllers adjust the balloon’s overall mass via the intake and expulsion of air. It’s this technology—the exact details of which remain secret—that makes World View unmatched in controlling altitude changes. On this mission, the balloon does as planned. It catches some strong winds and sails to Mexico and back. When World View is ready for it to come down, some onboard machinery springs into action. The cord connecting the payload to the balloon is chopped and a steerable parachute unfolds. Then mission control sends signals to levers to guide the payload, which travels at speeds as fast as 250 knots, to a location of World View’s choosing. The balloon can’t be steered, but it usually lands within a few miles of a predicted area.
Things don’t always run smoothly. For safety reasons, World View picks remote spots for the return to Earth, and its team doesn’t always reach the goods first. During an early mission, a payload was taken hostage on its return by someone in the desert. The man claimed it had killed his dog and hurt his grandmother, and he asked for money to give it back. (World View’s video showed the payload had landed safely.) On another occasion, a scavenger was seen on camera debating whether to hold the payload for ransom or strip it for parts. This caused World View to add a “call for reward” sign to its hardware for a spell, though the landings have recently become much more precise and the sign is no longer needed.
More distressingly, a balloon exploded on the launch site in December, creating a massive boom and fireball. World View mostly uses helium, but on this day it was running a test with hydrogen, which is cheaper and easier to get. Engineers were testing a venting mechanism when static electricity built up and sparked the gas. “The employees were a bit frightened,” Poynter says. “We’re not supposed to blow things up.” No one was hurt in the incident, but Tucson officials were unimpressed, noting extensive damage to walls, doors, and windows at the company’s headquarters. Meanwhile, the explosion reinvigorated critics of the sweetheart deal World View got on the property and building.
The explosion has done little to slow the company’s operations. Since the Zinger, it’s conducted more than 50 flights, primarily for the U.S. government, and kept its balloons up in the air for many days at a time. The company is in the process of preparing launches that will take balloons to the equator, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and across oceans. “People want us to do things like sit over the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and look for pirates,” MacCallum says. The company plans to start flying for commercial clients early next year. “Basically, our mission is to take over the stratosphere,” he says.
Experts contend that winds—or, really, the lack of them—at some latitudes will limit what sorts of routes World View can fly and when it can conduct missions. Poynter dismisses such criticisms, saying it will be possible to get consistent coverage everywhere the company wants by using teams of balloons. “The doubters make me happy,” she says.
In a back corner of World View’s immaculate factory, there’s a red-and-white canister big enough to hold eight people. It’s cylindrical, with rounded bulges on both sides and at both ends, each with nine windows arranged in a circular pattern. Even though Poynter and MacCallum spend most of their time talking up commercial applications for their balloons, their real dream—their life calling—is to take this capsule into space and let people see Earth with fresh eyes.
Poynter, 56, and MacCallum, 54, are wife and husband. She’s a Brit; he’s a Yank. Growing up, they were both free-spirited adventurers fascinated by the question of how people could live in space. They met in the 1980s while doing research missions at sea, and both ended up living inside the Biosphere 2 enclosed habitat from 1991 to 1993. “I went in because it seemed like such a forward-thinking idea to re-create planet Earth’s biosphere in miniature and then use that to sustain life elsewhere,” Poynter says. “I thought it was the closest I would ever get to doing something like actually being on Mars.”
Biosphere 2 was plagued by personal and technical issues, but the romance between Poynter and MacCallum survived. Before they had even left the bubble, they’d decided to start a company called Paragon Space Development Corp. It would become well-known for engineering all manner of oddities meant to hold up under extreme conditions. NASA had Paragon make a breeding system for animals on the space station; the U.S. Navy asked for a specialized suit that would let divers go into sewage or chemical-laden water; Elon Musk asked the company to develop plans for a greenhouse on Mars.
As they worked on these projects, MacCallum kept thinking back to his childhood. He grew up in New Mexico and spent time around big balloons as a kid. His father worked as a scientist at Sandia National Laboratories and was part of a team that discovered a black hole at the center of the Milky Way by attaching gamma ray-hunting telescopes to balloons. “I would go out and see these huge things with their massive payloads, and it stuck with me,” MacCallum says. “I have always been a space head.” One day he walked into Poynter’s office at Paragon and brought up the idea of doing some big balloons of their own. “I’m like, ‘Absolutely. That’s exactly what we’re doing,’ ” Poynter says.
The driving idea is to make space truly accessible. “We wanted to give people that seminal experience that astronauts talk about where you see the curvature of the Earth, the blackness of space, and have the mental space to really experience the planet,” she says. Instead of being strapped into a rocket, however, World View’s passengers will float into space slowly and peacefully inside a pretty roomy cabin without the need for a spacesuit or any special training. There will be a bar and a bathroom. People will reach 100,000 feet and hang out for two hours before being piloted down with the steerable parachute. Philippe Bourguignon, former head of Euro Disney and Club Med SAS, is an investor in World View and will be one of the first people to head to space when—if?—the $75,000-a-person flights begin in the next few years. “I bought tickets for my whole family,” he says. “But the company needs to hurry up, because my family is growing and there are more grandkids coming.”
As for exactly what the ride will be like, we could turn to a chicken sandwich for an answer or, better yet, to Eustace. “It will be a beautiful experience,” he says. “It will be the most peaceful ride you could imagine in this totally quiet environment instead of with a rocket shooting off and vibrating behind you. This will appeal to a huge number of people that want to see things from a different perspective. That’s all I can really say. You know something is good when it’s almost impossible to describe.”
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