After years of misinformation and millions of wasted dollars, perhaps the FAA realizes Camden can’t operate a spaceport.
Spaceport Camden was always a fictional story about a fictional rocket. And now it is about tourist rides part way to space under a hydrogen-filled balloon. Yes, it seems that’s Project Osprey.
Remember when Spaceport Camden was about rockets to the moon? Rocket rides for space tourists? An underwater astronaut training school? Satellite factories? Now, it is “tourism” balloon rides to the stratosphere for $125,000 a ticket.
Yep. In a February interview, Camden Administrator Steve Howard once again mentioned “There's a company currently that we're working with that is related in the tourism-- that is tourism-related.”
It’s increasingly obvious that Spaceport Camden’s secret Project Osprey is most likely a startup called Space Perspective. The company plans six-hour tours for eight passengers in a capsule slung under a hydrogen balloon. The capsule will be equipped with a toilet that Space Perspective describes as “the loo with the best view in the known universe.” A retrieval ship chases the balloon to recover the passengers after the planned ocean landing somewhere out there. Since winds in the stratosphere reach 130 mph, that would be one fast boat.
Figuring it out: Alaska Aerospace announced a cooperative agreement with Spaceport Camden last year. The Alaska Kodiak spaceport also included a “tourist” activity centered around balloon rides to the stratosphere by Space Perspective, a Florida startup that has dreams and little else. Since Kodiak launches rockets about twice a year, they’re hopeful high-altitude balloon rides for rich folk will substitute for the rocket doldrums. AKAerospace included eight pages on “balloon tourism” by the startup in their 2030 Master Plan.
A year ago, around the time of Camden’s first mention of Project Osprey, the Anchorage Daily News reported Space Perspective planned to use the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak Alaska as a launch site for Spaceship Neptune, a balloon reportedly as big as a football stadium. They offered five possible launch sites at Kodiak. Coincidentally, Balloon Launch Pad Site 2 is very near where Astra’s Rocket 3.1 impacted and exploded in two locations in September 2020.
Space Perspective co-founders Jane Poynter and Taber MacCallum were previously co-founders of World View Enterprises in Tucson (same city that Vector Space operated from). In 2016, World View asked Tucson to build a $15 million headquarters for its planned balloon tourism business. The original intent was to offer space tourism using high-altitude balloons.
World View had other issues:
World View had obtained significant investments from Tencent, a Chinese conglomerate that is suspected of cooperating in global Chinese spying. The World View/Tencent relationship was not fully disclosed in public meetings at the time World View was asking Tucson/Pima to build its headquarters. The World View headquarters would be built close to the Tucson Raytheon factory that produces air defense and missile systems for Department of Defense agencies. Raytheon’s agreement with Tucson/Pima stipulates that companies with non-NATO country foreign ownership could not operate within Raytheon’s security buffer. A similar problem would be if observation balloons drifted near Kings Bay Sub Base.
Would the Navy approve, or shoot them down?
World View had the same plans as Space Perspective has now until this happened in 2017 at “Spaceport Tucson”:
Luckily, the small high-altitude balloon was unmanned. The insurance payout was about half a million dollars.
It was immediately suspected that flammable hydrogen was used in the balloon. But co-founder MacCallum said this:
The World View balloon was filled with flammable hydrogen and the investigation found that a static spark caused the explosion.
Surely, they knew about the infamous deadly balloon explosion eighty years earlier when the passenger-filled, hydrogen-lifted Hindenburg exploded and caught fire in New Jersey.
Is it possible that Co-founder MacCallum and his wife/co-founder Poynter didn’t know their balloon was filled with flammable hydrogen or did MacCallum mean that after the explosion, they stopped using hydrogen for a while? The Space Perspective balloon will use a hydrogen mixture. Is that explosive or flammable?
World View never produced the number of jobs they promised.
“Far from a projected 400 workers, the company had fewer than the 100 employees it should now have [in 2019] under its deal with the county, even before a recent layoff[…]”
Last August, they certified they had “75 Full Time Employees.”
As recently as late Fall 2020, World View (the space balloon company!) was making hospital gowns under a no-bid contract with Pima County in lieu of paying rent.
World View has again started launching small scientific payloads, but no tourists. They never built the passenger balloon technology. World View hasn’t offered a sensible explanation why they’ve been launching their small balloons 400 miles away from “Spaceport Tucson.” Is that because of security issues about operations next to the Raytheon missile factory? What will be the Navy’s reaction to manned balloons over Kings Bay?
Poynter and MacCallum left World View to become the co-founders of Space Perspective at Kennedy Space Center.
Once again, they are promoting still-undeveloped technology to launch tourists part way to space in a capsule slung beneath a mostly hydrogen-filled balloon. Like the “space” company promisers who have signed Memorandums of Understanding with Camden County, they are hopeful of making deals wherever a deal can be made. They claim they will launch their balloon from Kennedy’s former Shuttle Landing runway, and “Cecil Spaceport in Florida, Hawaii, Alaska and elsewhere as we expand operations around the planet.” Kodiak Alaska is really banking on them. As of this writing, Space Perspective has not demonstrated its technology anywhere. At least Vector had an amateur rocket.
It's hard to understand how Space Perspective will operate.
Will people trust their lives under hydrogen balloons?
Will the top-shaped capsule make riders nauseous when it spins in stratospheric winds?
Why does Space Perspective need so many launch sites when people who can afford to spend $125,000 for a 6-hour thrill would surely prefer to launch from Kennedy Space Center rather than Cecil Field?
Should a State or County spend more than $10,000,000 to license a spaceport for a balloon company when the launches could take place 400 (or 5,081) miles away?
Will the holders of $125,000 tickets mind hanging around until the winds blow the right direction over the Atlantic?
Curiously, we cannot find any explanation how Space Perspective’s chase boat will recover the human-filled capsule when the high-altitude winds blow to the west towards Alabama.
Space tourism has been a major part of Spaceport Camden’s portfolio. Two years of political capital was spent to get a state law relieving space operators (and the County) of liability if tourist passengers died. Andrew Nelson, Camden County’s “spaceport subject matter expert” since 2015 was a globe-trotting space tourism promoter in his prior stint as XCOR’s President and COO.
In 2011, Nelson was at the Global Space and Satellite Forum in Abu Dhabi to persuade Emiratis that its Lynx spaceplane could offer a viable alternative to Virgin Galactic. Nelson’s plane never got its wings and Virgin Galactic has never taken a tourist on a space ride. Spaceport Camden’s secret 2015 Project Panther offered the prospects of Blue Origin operating its New Sheppard rocket for spaceport tourism. Blue Origin has never flown a space tourist. Today, space tourism means folks who come to watch a rocket launch.
But Camden now promises a fictional rocket the size previously launched here by Vector in 2017. Despite the publicity, virtually no one reported seeing the Vector rocket when it did launch. America’s smallest rocket is not likely to be a tourist attraction and cannot carry even a mouse tourist to space.
Space tourist balloons are now part of Camden’s rescue plan. Oddly enough, it seems like manned balloons don’t require spaceports. They already operate from open fields anywhere. Maybe the FAA Space Office wants them to launch from "spaceports" so they can justify licensing them when rockets won't work.
The commercialization of balloon space tourism has been long sought. The author of a 2002 study then wrote, “A balloon flying at 40 km (24 miles) of altitude can provide many of the benefits looked after in [rocket] space tourism both from the customer and the investor points of view.” In the past 20 years, balloon space tourism hasn’t developed. The same author also noted that a space balloon venture’s risk of failure was 40%. Coupled with the risk that a single accident wipes out demand, space balloon tourism remains speculative. But it appears to be an important part of Steve Howard’s secret plan for Spaceport Camden success.
Last year, the FAA wrote Chairman Starline that they might issue a spaceport site license but that rocket launches are not guaranteed. That’s easy to understand when Camden uses a tiny fictional rocket as the basis for its application. In fact, the FAA does not care if Camden taxpayers waste another ten million or fifty million dollars. They figure if we’re complacent enough to let our elected officials be so wasteful, it's none of the FAA’s business. The FAA is NEVER concerned about the collateral economic damage from spaceport licensing. If we're not sophisticated enough to understand the difference between Kennedy Space Center ($2.6 billion NASA funding) and Camden County funding (taxes on our homes and what we buy) that's just not their problem. There’s $150 million dollars worth of empty state and local taxpayer-built, FAA-licensed spaceports at Burns Flat, Kodiak, Midland, Cecil, Colorado, and two more soon in Michigan.
New Mexico's Spaceport America is about 5,400 jobs short of the 5,820 they predicted for 2020. That's a perfect place to launch balloons because they're already at a high elevation and its human-filled capsule won't sink in the ocean.
Spaceport Camden has been desperate for a partner of any kind for its public/private partnership. Over the years, we’ve heard about:
XCOR, the space tourism company that never got its wings;
Amateur rocket company Vector;
Opifex Global, the commercial underwater astronaut school with no graduates who have been to space,
The ABL rocket factory at Saint Marys airport; and now,
Balloon rides to space. A balloon company IS NOT a rocket company.
Spaceports aren’t supposed to be this goofy.
If Space Perspective used “hot air” balloons, they would be a perfect match for Steve Howard and his high-priced spaceport dream-team.