UAE prepares to become the gateway to the galaxy

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By Tony Glover  www.thenational.ae

The Emirates is set to become a leading player in the next era of space exploration.

  Stephen Attenborough, a director at Virgin Galactic, says Abu Dhabi could be the location for the company’s first non-US spaceport. Above, the Virgin WhiteKnightTwo performs a flyover during an event commemorating the completion of the spaceport runway in New Mexico.  Christ Chavez / Bloomberg
Stephen Attenborough, a director at Virgin Galactic, says Abu Dhabi could be the location for the company’s first non-US spaceport. Above, the Virgin WhiteKnightTwo performs a flyover during an event commemorating the completion of the spaceport runway in New Mexico. Christ Chavez / Bloomberg

UAE citizens are among the first passengers to sign up for private space travel and Middle Eastern institutions are providing much of the industry’s financial backing. Abu Dhabi has also been earmarked as the preferred site for a new global space centre.

Space tourism, a new sector being built around offering private individuals the opportunity to pay to go on space flights, is also paving the way for transcontinental flights on earth via space that will fly several times faster than the defunct Concorde.

A dozen of the passengers already booked to ride on the first Virgin Galactic suborbital space flights, which are planned for 2013, are from the UAE. They include Namira Salim, a UAE-based explorer and artist. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Ms Salim has planted the flag of her native Pakistan on both the North and South Poles and has skydived off Mount Everest.

But her most recent training has been for space. Like all potential passengers on the Virgin Galactic flights, she was obliged to undergo physical tests to see if she can withstand the force of lift off and re-entry. Virgin Galactic uses a centrifuge to mimic the effects of a gravitational pull six times that of the Earth’s surface.

“As the first Virgin Galactic founder astronaut from the UAE and one of the earliest members of the VG Astronaut club, I see this as an investment in the future of space flight. The private space industry, which is what we are establishing, will define the future of space technology,” Ms Salim says.

She also foresees the UAE playing a far more central role in global space travel in the future.

“I believe with major investments in Virgin Galactic from UAE stakeholders, it may be possible to one day have a private spaceport in the UAE.”

Virgin Galactic already has plans to develop a major space facility in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s possible that our first non-US base could be in Abu Dhabi, home to Aabar Investments, who last year took a significant minority stake in Virgin Galactic,” says Stephen Attenborough, a director at Virgin Galactic. The Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments has a 32 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic.

But, as space travel uses a great deal of US technology, Virgin must win the support of the US government for its Abu Dhabi project.

“Before this can take place, we will need to apply for and receive the required US regulatory and export approvals,” Mr Attenborough says.

Ms Salim believes that the private space travel sector is potentially far bigger than just space tourism.

“Virgin Galactic founder astronauts like myself are pioneers who are opening doors for private space flight in several arenas,” she says.

“Virgin Galactic’s contracts with Nasa to carry payloads, scientists and researchers to space will break ground for these opportunities not only in a much more environmentally friendly manner, but also at a much lower cost. More than anything, our initial investment as founders will make way for the common man to reach for the stars at a much more affordable price in future.”

Virgin’s investment in space is a gamble by Sir Richard Branson that space tourism will follow the commercial path taken by aviation a century ago. Just as the first air flights catered only to the super rich, but gradually increased in popularity, Virgin says space travel will become accessible to more people in the same way. The company also believes that space will add another dimension to air travel.

“We also dream of paving the way for transcontinental flights via space. Not only would these eventually have a lower carbon footprint than conventional flights, they would also be much faster, potentially completing the journey from London to Sydney, for example, in just a few hours,” Mr Attenborough says.

“Better access to space also has huge commercial possibilities from solar energy to the mining of rare minerals.”

When Virgin Galactic starts to take off from Spaceport America in New Mexico, in the US, the company believes its 100-kilometre-high flights will give it a long lead over competitors. More info