ABU DHABI // At US$200,000 (Dh730,000) a ticket, space flights may not yet draw the masses, but a spaceport in Abu Dhabi will put the country at the forefront of space tourism as the world market expands. Virgin Galactic and Aabar Investments signed a Dh1 billion (US$270m) deal on Tuesday that set Abu Dhabi on a course to have only the second permanent commercial spaceport in the world, with tourists jetting into space from a base here within five years.
Though space flights are currently out of reach for many, Virgin Galactic's owner, the British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, hopes to make space travel more accessible, and prices are expected to drop as the service rolls out. "There are many, many people who want to go into space, and we think we can make it pay its way," Sir Richard said after the announcement. "If we can make it pay its way we can go from suborbital flights, to orbital flights to hotels in space."
The UAE, which was scheduled to launch its first satellite into orbit last night, is investing heavily in space technology and will have exclusive regional rights to Virgin Galactic's space flights. The belief that space tourism will remain a "small-scale activity of the very wealthy" is widespread but wrong, according to Patrick Collins, , a professor at Japan's Azabu University and co-founder of Space Future Consulting.
"Having been delayed for over three decades by government space agencies' failure to develop more than a small fraction of the commercial potential of space, the start of space travel services is long overdue, and so they are capable of growing rapidly into a major new industry," Dr Collins claims. More than 300 people from 125 countries have booked suborbital space flights - which enter space but do not remain in space for a full orbit of the earth - with Virgin from its spaceport in New Mexico's Mojave desert, where flights are expected to commence by the end of 2010.
High interest from the Middle East in the company's commercial space flights was one of the reasons that the world's first "spaceline" has cited for choosing the Arabian Gulf as a base for flights. Virgin Galactic also held discussions with parties in Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia before this week's deal was signed with Abu Dhabi-based Aabar. "I think this will have a tremendous impact for Abu Dhabi," said Premjit Bangara, travel manager of Sharaf Travel, which sells tickets in the region for space trips. "It will stimulate interest in space travel in this part of the world, and in the long term, it will have a positive impact on tourism."
The Sharaf Group's president, Ibrahim Sharaf, is expected to be among those on the inaugural flight from New Mexico, making him the first Emirati to take a suborbital space trip. Space tourists cannot yet book trips from the planned Abu Dhabi port, where flights will not be available for four or five years. When the service does begin, it will be an important draw for Abu Dhabi as the emirate tries to meet its ambitious tourism targets, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA).
"This development would be a significant addition to Abu Dhabi's tourism portfolio, as we could envisage many visitors travelling to the emirate to take up the opportunity of exploring space from a launch station in the UAE capital," said Ahmed Hussein, deputy director general of ADTA. Virgin's suborbital flights will take passengers to the edge of space, where they will be weightless for about six minutes.
The spacecraft, attached to a mother ship, flies around 15,000 metres before separating and being blasted to 110,000 metres, about 10 times the altitude reached by commercial airliner. firstname.lastname@example.org