UAE prepares to become the gateway to the galaxy
The Emirates is set to become a leading player in the next era of space exploration.
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.
"We welcome competition in the space tourism industry as this will drive innovation," Mr Attenborough says. "But we believe we will have the industry pretty well to ourselves for a few years as we appear to have a five- to six-year lead. No one else has yet flown a successful prototype."
But Virgin Galactic may have competition sooner than it anticipates. XCOR, a US-based space flight development company, for instance, is hard on Virgin Galactic's heels with the development of a new spacecraft.
"The Lynx Mk II is scheduled to fly in 2014 and it reaches the 100-kilometre mark; we are not 'several years behind'," says Mike Massee, the spokesman for XCOR.
But it still looks as though Virgin Galactic's passengers will be the world's first space tourists.
"Our future astronaut customers are part of an incredible, pioneering community. We invite them to meet on Necker Island and other wonderful locations with Richard Branson, who is booked on the first flight with his children, in order for them to get to know each other and understand more about the project," Mr Attenborough says.
But not all the passengers who have booked onto the Virgin Galactic space flights are cast in Ms Salim's heroic mould. Passengers need only be over 18, healthy enough to withstand the space flight and, of course, be able to afford the US$200,000 (Dh734,600) ticket price.
"The 470 people who have made space flight reservations represent a wide array of ages," Mr Attenborough says. "The oldest person so far is leading environmental scientist Professor James Lovelock, aged over 90.
"While we do have all age groups represented among our space travellers, many are in their 60s and 70s."
Although the space flights will last only two hours, each customer will also receive three days of intensive training.
This is to prepare them for an experience that Virgin Galactic wants to be as close to that of a traditional astronaut as possible. Although the Virgin Galactic passengers will not be expected to make scientific observations in the way the US astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts did 40 years ago, they will experience the same zero-gravity conditions while in space.
"The spacecraft has large windows and is designed to allow the passengers to move freely in zero gravity," Mr Attenborough says.
"We are planning for a shirtsleeve environment, no cumbersome pressure suits, but are designing special clothing to allow freedom of movement with some padding to help in the zero-gravity phase."
The Virgin Galactic spaceship, called the Virgin Spaceship Enterprise, is named after the Starship SS Enterprise from the cult 1960s American television series Star Trek. It will be air launched from Virgin Mothership Eve, the world's largest all-carbon composite aviation building. The Virgin Starship Enterprise will carry two pilots and six passengers.
As on any space flight, weight will be the ultimate luxury. Virgin will not, therefore, be offering the kind of luxurious food and drinks that usually accompany a Virgin Atlantic inaugural flight.
A Virgin source did, however, reveal that amusements might include lightweight items such as a few drops of water floating in zero gravity and other "fun things" to keep passengers happy.
Although space travel tickets are still well beyond the average holiday budget, not all the passengers who have signed up for flights on the Virgin Spaceship Enterprise have yet paid the full fee.
"Seats cost $200,000, but it is possible to book ahead with a deposit of only $20,000 if someone is not too anxious about taking an early flight," Mr Attenborough says.
So far, Virgin Galactic has raised only $60 million from ticket sales. But the company insists that it is more important at this stage in the space industry's life to attract initial customers before economies of scale kick in later.
"We are not relying on this money to fund the project, but value our customers for their support and commitment, which has been essential to getting the project off the ground," Mr Attenborough adds.
Virgin Atlantic is anxious to retain a degree of control over who goes on its space flights. It is not possible to buy Virgin Galactic tickets to trade them closer to the 2013 lift off.
"Tickets are refundable, but not transferable to another individual."
Passengers are also advised to travel at their own risk.
"Before taking the space flight, travellers will have to sign an informed consent waiver in case of accident or injury," Mr Attenborough says.
But whatever expenses and risks early space travellers incur, companies such as Virgin Galactic believe that more important issues are at stake.
"We agree with the renowned scientist Professor Stephen Hawking, who himself hopes to fly with us, that mankind's eventual survival will ultimately rely on the successful colonisation of space," Mr Attenborough says.
Published: October 7, 2011 04:00 AM