Private Sector Progress via Spaceport Tucson

December 29, 2016
Kelsey Tollefson
December 29, 2016
Kelsey Tollefson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

In the minds of many, the city of Tucson, Arizona is usually associated with sky-high temperatures and the saguaro cactus. For those familiar with the aerospace industry, however, Tucson and the greater Pima County area bring to mind any number of industry giants, such as Boeing, Raytheon and Honeywell, who base their operations there. These and others all add up to make Tucson one of the country’s most concentrated hubs in the high-tech aerospace manufacturing industry.

Image credit: World View Enterprises

Venerable industry mainstays notwithstanding, Pima County is also home to emerging space startups that have built a place for themselves in Arizona desert. Construction is nearing completion on the county’s new Spaceport Tucson, to be used as headquarters for high-altitude balloon startup World View Enterprises. The Spaceport will also include launch facilities and a manufacturing center, and represents the state’s first commercial spaceport. Vector Space Systems, another startup venture, is also breaking ground on manufacturing facilities in 2017.

World View’s Spaceport is nearing completion

World View Enterprises, a Space Angels Network-funded venture, has been based in Tucson since their founding in 2013. Now the startup’s future in Arizona has been cemented for the next twenty years––World View has agreed to a long-term lease with Spaceport Tucson, and the completion of the launch facilities will prepare World View to capitalize on the unique opportunities presented by their Voyager and Stratollite balloon technologies.

Image Credit: World View Enterprises

The Spaceport will be used as the launch site for the World View Experience. In their eponymous Experience, World View’s Voyager balloon will be used to ferry thrill-seeking tourists to stratospheric heights. Over a leisurely, five-hour expedition, customers will rise to elevations over 100,000 feet, enabling them to view the curvature of the Earth and the blackness of space from the comfort of a fully-enclosed and plushly-appointed viewing deck.

In addition to their Voyager balloon, World View is pioneering an entirely new class of airborne vehicle: A uniquely-capable high-altitude balloon that World View is calling the Stratollite. Capable of rapid deployment and geostationary orbit, the Stratollite “can fly as high as 140,000 feet with a payload capacity of 1,000 pounds” for short-endurance flights. Practical applications for the balloon technology include not only high-altitude tourism, but also the facilitation of remote communications, weather monitoring, and scientific research.

Vector Space Systems will break ground on a new rocket factory in 2017

Vector Space Systems, another of Space Angels Network’s portfolio companies, has had an exciting year since its founding in early 2016. Vector hopes to meet the growing demand for microsatellite launchers, and intends to develop technology capable of sending microsatellites into sun-synchronous orbit. The market for microsatellites, which by definition weigh under 100 kilograms each, is expected to swell at a 20% CAGR by 2020.

Image Credit: Vector Space Systems

Small-scale rockets have enormous value to the space industry by virtue of their compact size: Companies looking to launch a microsatellite will no longer need to reserve a place on the next mega-rocket headed to space, where co-mingled payloads are sent up en masse. The flexibility offered by small, affordable commercial rockets, like Vector’s Vector-R launch vehicle, lowers the barrier for entry into the private space sector, which Vector CEO Jim Cantrell hopes will, in turn, inspire further innovation on the part of entrepreneurs.

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also see the value in Cantrell’s vision: In September of this year, NASA awarded Vector Space with a grant to develop the prototype upper stage engine for the Vector-R launch vehicle. This contract, in addition to a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant previously awarded by DARPA, represents a $2.5M budget to develop and test advanced rocket engine components.

Earlier this month, Vector Space announced more big news: They’ve secured a 25-year lease on property near Tucson, AZ, and will break ground on their new rocket factory in the spring of 2017. The announcement of Vector’s land deal was followed by a successful test of the startup’s novel first stage 5k-LBF engine, confirming that the Vector-R vehicle is still on-track for a test launch in 2017.

The growth of private-sector space hubs like Tucson is an exciting indication of progress to come.

World View’s plans for manned test launches of their Voyager balloon are on-target to begin in 2017. If all goes well, World View’s unique brand of (near-) space tourism could be underway by 2018. Their Stratollite technology would open up different revenue streams, and Stratollite’s potential research applications suggest that World View will find no shortage of uses for their new launch facilities.

Vector’s arrival in Tucson in 2017 will mean more growth in the region. Despite its reputation as a high-tech manufacturing hub, Tucson’s long-established aerospace manufacturing sector lost some 1700 jobs between the years of 2010 and 2014. However, things are looking up: Over the next five years, Vector’s new facilities “will have an overall direct and indirect economic impact on the region totaling $290M … with additional job growth of 200 positions expected over the next three years.”

As the prospect of a space-based economy becomes ever more realizable, the success of commercial space startups can be bolstered by cooperation between public- and private-sector entities. World View’s deal with Pima County to advance both the county’s economic interests and the venture’s revenue goals suggests that each recognizes the very real value that the other brings to the proverbial table. 

The same can be said of the relationship between Vector Space Systems and NASA. Per John Peugeot, NASA engineer and Vector Space joint project liaison, the successful engine test was "a very visible demonstration of the benefits [generated] through public-private partnerships between industry, academia, and government.”

As both startups have secured long-term leases with Pima county, it’s clear that World View and Vector Space are confident in their ability to take make the most of their prime real estate.

The arrival of commercial space ventures in industry hot-spots like Tucson, Arizona underlines the significant value that enterprising space startups can add, not only to local economies on Earth, but also to the future of space-based industry.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.


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