Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur and founder of the Virgin group, is hoping to open a spaceport in Abu Dhabi in the next two years, as he deepens his business ties with the capital, he said on a visit to the UAE.
He also said he was in discussion with Abu Dhabi investors regarding a new project in the leisure sector, thought to be at an early stage, but declined to give details.
Speaking exclusively to The National on the sidelines of a government conference in Dubai, Sir Richard said: “We are talking to Abu Dhabi investors with a view to creating a new kind of company, to attract new people into the leisure business.”
Regarding the spaceport, he said plans for his first space flight later this year were advancing, and that the intention to locate a space facility in the capital was going ahead.
“It’s all very exciting on a number of levels. We can have people in space, we can put a whole array of satellites in space, which would have a big effect on global telecommunications. I hope we’ll have a space hub in Abu Dhabi in a couple of years,” he said.
Sir Richard has been in partnership with Abu Dhabi investors since 2009, when Aabar Investments, the government-backed investment company, took a stake in Virgin Galactic, his space venture. He said Aabar has a 35 per cent stake in the business, valued at about US$300 million.
Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic’s commercial director, said a spaceport in the capital was “very much part of the vision”, but warned that the project would need export approvals from the American government to set up a new site outside theUnited States.
“Although plans for a Virgin Galactic operation from an Abu Dhabi spaceport have been under consideration for some time, it has always been the case that Virgin Galactic, along with its partners, will need to take a number of steps before any firm announcements can be made.
“Our current primary focus is to complete the SpaceShipTwo development programme and start a full commercial service later this year from its home at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
“Once that is established, we may seek the necessary US export approvals to operate from locations outside the US with Abu Dhabi as a likely first overseas base, should those approvals be forthcoming,” Mr Attenborough added.
The space plan has fallen behind schedule after an explosion three years ago at Virgin’s current hub in California’s Mojave Desert.
“That set us back, and people forget that this is rocket science. It is not a simple thing. But we are ticking all the boxes and we are nearly there,” Sir Richard said. He added that he hoped to make a space flight on the Virgin craft by September.
“After that, there are lots of possibilities. Ultimately we are looking at supersonic travel between cities at suborbital or even orbital levels. We are still dreaming, but it’s getting nearer,” he said.
A spaceport in Abu Dhabi would make it a global centre of the space industry, and boost the UAE’s travel and tourism businesses, analysts believe.
Sir Richard also said that Virgin Money, his financial services operation, which is also backed by Abu Dhabi investors, was growing “fantastically”.