Beam me up

Four companies are in the race to launch commercial space travel, led by Virgin Galactic. But as Anil Bhoyrul reports, all four are now targeting the Arab market.

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By  Anil Bhoyrul Published  April 2, 2006

|~|34-51362054-200.jpg|~|LIFT OFF: The Arab world is set to build its first ever spaceport, from which flights into orbit will take off.|~|Four companies are in the race to launch commercial space travel, led by Virgin Galactic. But as Anil Bhoyrul reports, all four are now targeting the Arab market. It looks like an unused desert air strip, situated less than 10km outside the centre of Ras Al-Khaimah. But local residents have for several months noticed the fleets of limousines that regularly pull up, circle the area for half an hour, then disappear. The passengers of those limousines, since the beginning of last year, between them have around US$10 billion in cash: British tycoon Sir Richard Branson; American billionaire George French; Canadian tycoon Geoff Sheerin and US businessman Chirinjeev Kathuria. All four men share the same dream of launching the world’s first commercial spacecraft. All four have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars each on their individual ventures, and now all four have one thing in common: they want a slice of the Arab market. Branson has so far stolen most of the limelight, with his first Virgin Galactic spaceflight due to take off from New Mexico in late 2008. But Virgin’s next spaceport – the base from which the flights will take off – is what is now drawing most attention. Last week, during a three day visit to Dubai to launch Virgin Atlantic services to the emirate, he held talks with UAE officials to discuss building a spaceport in Ras Al-Khaimah. But just as Branson’s plane was touching down in Dubai, he appeared to have been trumped. One of his three rivals, Space Adventures, announced that Adnan Al Maimani will become the first national from the United Arab Emirates to launch from the future commercial spaceport to be located at the Ras Al-Khaimah International Airport. Last month the company announced plans to locate a spaceport in the UAE that will be funded by various parties, along with shared investments by Space Adventures and the government of Ras Al-Khaimah. Also, His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, along with the UAE Department of Civilian Aviation, have granted clearance to operate suborbital spaceflights in their airspace. “Since we made the initial announcement last month of our partnership with His Highness Sheikh Saud and the development of a spaceport in Ras Al-Khaimah, we have received thousands of inquires from individuals in the Gulf region, specifically the UAE, who are interested in commercial spaceflight and want to fly,” says Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures. “Mr. Al Maimani has a pioneering spirit and we are enthusiastic that he will be the first from the UAE to fly to space, and that his historic flight will launch from his home country.” Space Adventures claims to have already stuck close to US$100 million into its venture, but will it really happen? Branson is dismissive, telling Arabian Business: “A lot of companies around the world are now offering space travel, but no-one else has made the same progress as us. People have to be careful about paying deposits. I don’t want to name any companies, but we have looked at all the different kinds of technology. We looked at Russian technology and we dismissed it. We looked at a lot of US technology, and we dismissed it.” His Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn is even more disparaging of the claims coming out of Ras Al-Khaimah and Space Adventures, adding: “They haven’t actually built a system that works. It has never flown. It is a plywood mock-up in the middle of Russia. I favour competition but only when it exists. You shouldn’t sell people dreams that don’t work.” Try telling that to Adnan Al Maimani, who last week was eager to tell anyone who would listen that he was off to space: “I am honored to represent the UAE as the first national to fly to space, but even more thrilling is that I’ll launch from Ras Al-Khaimah. I have been interested in space exploration as long as I can remember. Space Adventures is providing the opportunity to experience what I never thought could be possible in my lifetime. If I could fly today, I would!” Whether he ever does remains to be seen, but the attraction for both companies and space travelers is not hard to see. Branson’s Virgin Group has ploughed US$225 million into its project, and next week will start construction work on its SpaceShipOne, having completed several successful test flights since 2004. Virgin Galactic has had enquires from 45,000 budding space travelers, each willing to stump up the US$20,000 deposit needed before paying the remaining US$180,000 to get their ticket to space. Not bad considering five years ago it could cost around US$20 million for a commercial space flight – and that’s assuming you could find one. The relatively low price means that Virgin Galactic has already taken US$13.7 million in deposits, and its business plan suggests a break-even scenario three years after the first flight takes off, in 2011. But given that few of the 45,000 applicants so far are from the Arab world, Branson and his competitors know this is the region where the next spaceport should, and is likely to, be built. Space aviation analyst Ravi Kumar tells Arabian Business: “The two big players in this market are Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Rocketplane Kistler, which is being funded by George French. French has been claiming that he will be operating commercial flights by late 2007, which is a year ahead of Branson. I’m not sure he will. But it doesn’t really matter who goes first. What both men want is a slice of the Arab market, purely because of the wealth in this region. They know that they could probably get 100,000 bookings very quickly. A lot of people in the Middle East have got US$200,000 and a lot of people like the idea of going into space.” So where is the Middle East spaceport likely to be? Both men are reported to have studied the GCC carefully, with Bahrain and the UAE the most likely hubs. “I think from our point of view you have to say the UAE is the front-runner,” Whitehorn says, adding: “We have actually been having talks with officials from all the emirates in the UAE. I think it’s reasonable to assume that Ras Al-Khaimah has so far given us the best option. I would think we could get a spaceport going in this region sooner rather than later. The next one will begin construction in Sweden and the third, after that, may well be in the UAE.” Such plans have already impressed one UAE resident, Pakistani born Namira Salim. Last Wednesday she was unveiled as the first Dubai resident that will fly into space. Just 25 years old and an artist by profession, her construction tycoon father Salim Nasir has stumped up the entire US$200,000 fee and guaranteed her a place as a “founder member” of Virgin Galactic, ensuring she will be one of the first 100 people to fly into space on SpaceShipOne. “I’ve always wanted to go into space and I knew I always would. But I looked around at the competition first,” she says, adding: “At the moment a lot of companies are claiming they can put you there for the right money, and as soon as they realised I was from the UAE they of course all wanted to sign me up. Everyone wants to say that they are taking somebody from here into space, because it will be a first. But I think people should be careful who they go with. I’m more than happy to pay the US$200,000 because I have no doubt this will definitely happen. There is no question of it not happening.” Just how big the commercial space market could be is anyone’s guess. Kumar says that within five years the cost of commercial space travel will drop to below US$100,000 a time, and should a spaceport be built in the UAE, a potential 80,000 Arabs are likely to register an interest in flying. He says the industry could soon be worth several billion dollars. “I don’t think anyone disagrees that as long as the flights are proven to be safe, which so far Virgin Galactic’s is, this is the next big industry. The cost will come down rapidly and there is always going to be huge demand,” he says. Unofficial estimates from Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures suggest the revenue stream from the Arab world for commercial space travel could top the US$500 million mark if sponsorship is included. Branson himself says: “I remember being a kid watching Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, and being absolutely spell-bound. From that moment I was inspired to do something like this. And I think our venture can be both commercially successful and awesome. I would also like to think that within our lifetime, we will have the technology to use space travel to go from places like London to Sydney in just half an hour. There’s a long way to go, and certainly I hope the UAE will have a role to play in our future plans.”||**||

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