Holmes: Why World View doesn't have a spacey business model
Two weeks ago, without much fanfare or notice from the press, the Tucson Airport Authority board unanimously passed a resolution backing the development of Spaceport Tucson, the new and controversial home of World View Enterprises.
What this resolution means is that after months of actively working against the spaceport, the airport has gotten past the rhetoric and negativity, reviewed the facts, and decided to work with World View and other stakeholders (like the airlines) to facilitate the Federal Aviation Administration licensing process.
Why the turnaround?
I think a lot of the negativity came from the way that the press initially talked about World View, stressing the balloon rides to the edge of space for millionaire adventure seekers. Most of us here in Tucson got the impression that here was another exclusive thing that was coming to town, that we would never see any benefit from, and that sounded more like a get rich quick scheme than a real business venture with legs.
And then, Pima County voted to support the idea by building a $15 million dollar building for them! For what?!? For rich tourists to lounge around in while they wait for their next balloon ride to space? Why not $15 million for roads that would benefit all of us?
Now granted, this makes good press if you are looking for a reason to bash local government… and it didn't take more than a minute before Supervisor Ally Miller and her "burn the house down" myrmidons jumped on the story with both feet in an effort to make the county administrator look bad and the rest of the Board of Supervisors look dumb.
But they jumped on the story too soon.
Because World View is not really about balloon rides to space for millionaires. That's just a sideline.
And it is not a spacey business model. Because there are already two other companies in the world trying to mimic them, and they are already taking orders for the other work they do.
So, why did Pima County decide to support them? Because they saw a way to do three things:
1. Make money. World View is already launching balloons – they already have an FAA license for unmanned flights. They have launched about 50 missions so far from remote sites in Marana, Benson, and Page, and they are taking orders from NASA, NOAA, and other government and private customers who want to launch sensors to collect information about everything from weather, to radiation, and things that perhaps we have might not have a need to know about. The modest projections are that Pima County will make its money back in about 15 years, which is way better than Donald Trump has done with some of his projects.
2. Enhance Tucson's tourism image. Let's face it, our image has taken a beating in the last decade, and it is only starting to come back. Leaping past professional sports and other dreams of the past, and creating a place for the ultra-wealthy to spend some time actually makes sense. Because the ultra-wealthy have friends. And they tend to stay and spend money on other things, like nice dinners, and spa vacations, and rental cars. And all of these create jobs, and generate tax revenues, which can be spent on roads and other things that the people that actually live here need.
3. But by far the best thing that this deal is doing for us is to create high-tech manufacturing and engineering jobs. And I say "doing" because it has already created 40, and that is just the start. You see, almost everything that World View uses is made right here in Tucson, and much of it is patented technology. Everything from the balloon, the capsule, the flight systems – all done right here, and if you are going to launch on a schedule of once a week, THAT is a lot of manufacturing!
But the jobs do not end at World View. What this company really does is offer a very inexpensive way for researchers, mappers, communications companies, the military, and a number of other types of folks to get their systems – any kind of system – into the stratosphere. Rockets can't do this. Elon Musk and SpaceX can't do this. But balloons can, and they don't need anything but helium, a little plastic, cooperative weather, and the patented technology that World View has invented to keep them at the right altitude and stable location.
These companies – and Raytheon could be one of them – will want to locate their manufacturing close to the launch site. And that will be right here in Tucson. Just like the Kennedy Space Center transformed central Florida, World View is already creating the start of a similar dynamic here.
Given that there are already two other competitors for what World View does should give you some idea for how popular this capability is becoming. But World View has the advantage in that they have the patented technology, and about a three-year headstart.
So, while like many, I had an initial reaction of "WTF?", I can see that it is starting to make some sense.
And so does the Tucson Airport Authority board.
The World View deal represents precisely the type of "outside the box" thinking that Arizona needs to create the kind of economy we want - and need - to provide a future for our children. This is the kind of thing that I will actively work to encourage and attract as a representative in the Arizona State Legislature. And if the Goldwater Institute's lawsuit actually holds up in court - a thing looking less likely by the day - then we need to seriously think about changing the law.
Oh, about those balloon flights to space. They will start flying in about three years. Congress has already amended the laws that will allow the FAA to license that type of commercial manned flight.
And they are already sold out.
The operations program manager for Pima County Attractions & Tourism, Mike Holmes is a Democratic candidate for state representative in LD 14.