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Virgin Galactic plans to make its inaugural commercial space flight some time this year. Christ Chavez / Bloomberg
Virgin Galactic plans to make its inaugural commercial space flight some time this year. Christ Chavez / Bloomberg

Virgin Galactic gives boost to Abu Dhabi spaceport plan

With Virgin Galactic's plan to launch its first space flight this year, Abu Dhabi is poised to move an exciting step closer to the construction of its own spaceport.

Virgin Galactic plans to make its inaugural commercial space flight some time this year, providing a massive boost to plans to locate a 21st-century spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

"Depending onthe progress of the last portion of the experimental test flight programme and the federal aviation authority licensing process we hope to be undertaking full space test flights by the end of 2013 and in commercial operations within a relatively short period thereafter," says Sean Wilson, a Virgin Galactic spokeswoman.

According to Virgin Galactic, which is in negotiations with "appropriate Abu Dhabi entities" regarding the construction of a spaceport, the emirate stands to make huge gains from the location of the company's second spaceport in Abu Dhabi.

"Abu Dhabi would have the potential to become a globally recognised and respected regional centre for the new commercial space industry," says Ms Wilson.

"The presence of a spaceport in the UAE could also boost inbound tourism and foreign investment in the region.

"In addition, the new space economywillenrich economic diversification for long-term prosperity."

Virgin Galactic firmly believes that the kind of space tourism being used to launch its commercial service is only the start of a whole new platform of space-based services and technologies.

"Commercial space has a wide range of applications so there is the opportunity for localjob creation across a wide spectrum, particularly in highly-skilled positions," says Ms Wilson.

According to the Virgin Group founder and head Sir Richard Branson, the launching of extra-terrestrial satellites is also set to become a major 21st-century industry over the coming years, with launch costs falling to an unprecedented level.

"Satellites can be much smaller and smarter and much more powerful," says Sir Richard.

But he adds: "One big obstacle remains the old and inefficient method used to get satellites into orbit."

Virgin's solution to the problem is LauncherOne, a vessel that will transport and launch satellites into space at low cost.

This is to be operated by Virgin Galactic's spacecraft-maker sister, The Spaceship Company.

Sir Richard predicts that his satellite launch service will enable new space businesses to become operational far more quickly and far more cheaply. He foresees a growing democratisation of space.

Until now, the launching of satellites has been the preserve of powerful governments or of wealthy mega-corporations.

But Sir Richard believes that the full commercial and social applications of space have hardly been touched by today's high-priced space travel technologies. "Nations, states, cities and even universities and schools will be able to launch dedicated satellites," he says.

Industry watchers believe that technologies such as global positioning systems will enable local organisations such as city authorities to provide increasingly localised personal services to their citizens.

Some civil rights groups, however, are already sounding warnings that increased satellite surveillance of ordinary citizens could one day become a serious threat to personal liberty.

But with spaceports set to be as important to regional economies as airports were in the last century, Virgin Galactic believes that the benefits extra-terrestrial technology will bring outweigh the potential drawbacks and dangers.

Sir Richard and his family intend to travel on the inaugural Virgin Galactic flight. The flight on SpaceShip Two, as the space vessel is called, will seat six passengers and two pilots.

But despite Sir Richard's undoubted personal courage in taking not only himself but also his family on the flight, question marks still remain over the safety and advisability of space tourism.

The spectre of disasters such as the space shuttle Challenger tragedy of 1986, when the spacecraft broke apart only 73 seconds into its flight, claiming the lives of its seven crew members, hangs over civilian passengers and their lawyers.

There are currently 570 passengers with reservations on future Virgin Galactic flights, at least 10 of whom live in the Middle East.

Virgin Galactic flights cost US$200,000 (Dh734,620) per ticket but, with the price of seats set to fall in the future and the number of space tourists set to rise, fears for the legal repercussions of lawsuits loom over the new industry.

Aside from the risk of fatalities, the new breed of thrill-seeking amateur astronauts might not be as physically robust as the former breed of military astronauts, many of whom were seasoned test pilots.

New Mexico has already spent more than $200 million developing a spaceport for Virgin Galactic in the southern part of the state.

Representatives of New Mexico trial lawyers also claim to have negotiated a proposal destined to shield Virgin from damaging lawsuits from future passengers.

But Virgin Galactic holds the view that space travel and its associated technologies hold the key to the survival of the human race, which is being threatened by the rapid depletion of the Earth's natural resources.

According to Sir Richard: "Better access to space is not a silver bullet, but it is one vital component of a better future."

business@thenational.ae

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