Astronauts from the Gulf help Virgin Galactic to blast off

At least 20 would-be Gulf space travellers have signed up to fly out of this world with the venture in which Aabar Investments owns a 32 per cent stake.

At least 20 would-be astronauts from the Gulf have signed up to fly out of this world with Virgin Galactic, the space tourism venture in which Aabar Investments of Abu Dhabi owns a 32 per cent stake. The popularity of the planned sub-orbital space flights will help the company turn a profit within two years of operation, said Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic.

Some 330 people have signed up to take a trip and Virgin Galactic holds about US$45 million (Dh165.2m) in deposits. Ibrahim Sharaf, the chairman of the Sharaf Group based in Dubai, and Pakistani-born Namira Salim, who lives in the UAE, are among those who have signed up for the adventure. "We certainly see a business plan where we will be profitable within two years of operation," Mr Whitehorn said.

He said the spaceport that would be used to launch the Virgin Galactic craft in New Mexico would be ready next year, when test space flights were also likely to begin. "We will be doing test flights hopefully into space next year. We then have to go through further processes. We're not looking at a huge amount of time, but I'm not going to say 2011, 2012, or 2013. It's going to be when we're ready."

Mr Whitehorn said New Mexico was one of the few locations Virgin Galactic could launch from because the airspace at the planned space port was closed to regular civil aviation. Abu Dhabi is unlikely to host flights into space in the near future despite having the exclusive regional rights. Aabar Investments, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi Government, last July agreed to pay $280m for the 32 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial spaceline, with the company valued at $900m.

"This investment is not predicated [to take] the system out of the United States. The system has to be developed in the US to start with. It's the only place in the world with the legislation to do this and the regulatory structures," Mr Whitehorn said. No further financing was needed on top of Aabar's investment, he added. The deal was subject to regulatory clearances, which should be completed within a few months, he said. "That is in process now and that is expected to happen not too far in the future," said Mr Whitehorn. "It's going smoothly."

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 intended to reach an altitude of more than 100km.