x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Space tourism may lift off in Abu Dhabi

Tourists could soon be travelling into space from Abu Dhabi after the Virgin Group and Aabar signed a deal on Tuesday.

With a model of WhiteKnightTwo behind him, Sir Richard Branson, gives an interview at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
With a model of WhiteKnightTwo behind him, Sir Richard Branson, gives an interview at the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture convention in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Tourists could soon be travelling into space from Abu Dhabi after the Virgin Group and Aabar signed a deal yesterday that gives the capital exclusive regional rights to host flights. Aabar Investments, owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, will pay US$280 million (Dh1.03 billion) for a 32 per cent stake in the world's first commercial spaceline, Virgin Galactic, which values the company at $900m. The deal is still subject to regulatory clearances.

Aabar has also committed $100m to fund a launch station for satellites. Khadem al Qubaisi, the chairman of Aabar, said: "The partnership not only falls in line with Abu Dhabi's larger plans [for] technology research and science at a grassroots level, but also complements its aim to be the international tourism capital of the region." Virgin Galactic said 300 people from around the world had already signed up to take the two-hour trip into space, which costs $200,000 a person. Virgin has secured $40m in deposits from these customers. More than 85,000 people have expressed interested in the space flights with Virgin Galactic. The experience will involve two to three days of preparation for flyers, including medical checks, g-force acclimatisation and training. During the trip, passengers will be able to leave their seats and float in zero gravity, admiring views of space and the Earth. The flights are sub-orbital, meaning they reach an altitude higher than 100km above sea level. The passenger spaceship, SpaceShipTwo, is nearing completion and has the capacity to carry six passengers and two pilots. SpaceShipTwo is based on the prototype SpaceShipOne, which was funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, at a cost of $26m. The prototype made three flights into space in 2004, and is now displayed in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Up until now, Virgin Galactic has been wholly owned by Virgin Group, which has invested more than $100m in the venture since it was set up five years ago. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, said yesterday's deal "will leverage the solid financial backing of Aabar and the technology of Virgin Galactic". Virgin said it expected Aabar's investment to fully fund the project until it started its commercial flights. Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, said: "A satellite launch capability would allow us to have much wider industrial and scientific work in space, and they've shown willingness to fund that, and that is one of the main reasons we've chosen Aabar as an investor." Testing of the spaceship is expected to start later this year, with the test flight period expected to take between 18 months and two years. Building of the first commercial spaceships will start while the test programme is under way. Sir Richard and his family will fly on the inaugural commercial flight. The first commercial flights are planned to operate from a purpose-built spaceport in New -Mexico. rbundhun@thenational.a