Photo: Cy Cyr
"It just didn't occur to me that there was that much risk going on. We were very young," says Poynter.
From Biosphere to the edge of space, Poynter is focused on getting tourists into space
Co-Founder/Co-CEO/Chief Experience Officer, Space Perspective, Titusville
In 1991, Jane Poynter, then 29 years old, volunteered along with seven others to spend two years living inside an airtight dome in the Arizona desert. The purpose of the privately funded science project, known as Biosphere 2, was to create a ground-based test bed for a space settlement — an enclosed habitat where humans could live for extended periods by farming their own food and recycling their air, water and waste.
Poynter didn’t think twice about joining the lockdown. After helping to design the project, testing it seemed like the logical next step, she says. “I was also at that perfect stage where you feel immortal,” she says. “It just didn’t occur to me that there was that much risk going on. We were young. We were sealed away for two years, but it’s not like they locked the doors and threw away the keys. We could get out at any time if there was an issue.”
There were some issues. Less than a month in, Poynter accidentally cut off her fingertip in a rice-hulling machine and had to briefly duck out for medical care. And many months later, oxygen levels inside the bio-dome plummeted to such a degree that the inhabitants were suffering from sleep apnea, and supplementary oxygen had to be pumped in.
Mishaps aside, Poynter remembers daily life inside the 3.14-acre terrarium — which included a rainforest, a desert, a tiny ocean with a coral reef and other “biomes” — as being rather “simple” as she split her time between working the farm and the laboratory. “All I had to keep track of on a daily basis were my pruning shears and two-way radio,” she recalls. The experience was also deeply moving. “To have this stark experience of being enclosed in a biological life support system, it turns out that is a very similar experience to the ones astronauts have when they go to space,” she says.
Poynter married Taber MacCallum, another participant in Biosphere 2 whom she’d met several years earlier, and the two have devoted their professional lives to space projects. Before they’d even left Biosphere 2, they teamed up with aerospace engineer Grant Anderson to start a company called Paragon Space Development, which makes life support technology for extreme environments.
Poynter says her favorite project at Paragon was designing liter-sized biospheres that were able to sustain breeding populations of amphipods, snails and other creatures in space. One of her experiments spent 16 months aboard the International Space Station and marked the first time animals had gone through multiple life cycles in orbit.
These days, Poynter and her husband are focused on getting tourists into space. Their 3-year-old Titusville company, Space Perspective, won’t be using any rockets. Instead, it plans to load eight passengers and one pilot into a pressurized capsule called Spaceship Neptune that will be lifted 100,000 feet to the outer reaches of Earth’s atmosphere by a hydrogen-filled balloon that’s slightly bigger than the Statue of Liberty. “The magic of this is that the balloon goes very smoothly and gently,” Poynter says. “You’re going to space at 12 mph. The journey itself is very accessible physically. It’s also safe.”
During the six-hour journey, passengers will be able to mill about the capsule’s “space lounge,” sip drinks at the bar and take in panoramic views of the atmosphere’s thin blue line. While it’s not the stomach-flipping, zero-gravity experience some space enthusiasts seek, Poynter says that’s precisely the point: “If you really want to experience zero gravity, you can go on a zero-g flight (with another company). We’re really focused on the experience of seeing Earth in space. That’s really the experience we want people to take away from this.”
The Florida company has sold more than 900 tickets (at $125,000 per person) and aims to launch flights by the end of 2024. And while the main focus at the moment is getting Spaceship Neptune built and readied for testing, Poynter can’t help but think about what’s next. She envisions additional launch locations across the globe and longer flights. “I think it would be really exciting to do an around-the-world in one of these. That would be incredibly cool,” she says.