Space tourism ready for lift off in Al Ain, says UAE Space Agency director

Commercial flights into space could be operated from Al Ain Airport in a partnership with Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic’s space tourism rocket plane SpaceShipTwo returns after a test flight  from Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, U.S. December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Gene Blevins
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The UAE could provide the launch pad to finally get ambitious space tourism plans off the ground, the country's space agency director said.

Mohammad Al Ahbabi, director of the UAE Space Agency, said the organisation is working with Virgin Galactic on a bid to operate tourist space flights from Al Ain International Airport in the coming years.

The announcement comes three months after a Virgin Galactic rocket blasted off into space, moving forward efforts to launch an eventual service for paying passengers.

Pilots Mark Stucky and C J Sturckow fired the rocket engine of their Unity spacecraft for 60 seconds, taking them to an altitude of more than 50 miles (80.5 kilometres).

It marked the first manned flight into space from US soil since the end of Nasa’s shuttle missions.

A second successful test flight was carried out in February.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said he hoped to make his first flight some time this year as the company steps up its bid to begin commercial operations.

“Virgin Galactic which was founded by Sir Richard Branson and owned by Virgin group and Mubadala Investment Company, is the first business space agency in the world and has conducted successful trial flights recently,” said Mr Al Ahbabi.

“The reason why the company opted for Al Ain airport is that it is less crowded than other UAE airports, which are scheduled with thousands of flights.”

Airbus has used Al Ain airport to stress test its new aircraft in high summer temperatures, including the wide-body A350.

It was chosen for its hot, dry conditions and relatively quiet runways.

Virgin Galactic operates the reusable SpaceShipTwo spaceflight system. This consists of WhiteKnightTwo, a custom-built, carrier aircraft, and SpaceShipTwo, the world’s first passenger-carrying spaceship to be built by a private company and operated in commercial service.

The Virgin Group has been eager to use the UAE as a space tourism hub for many years.

Back in 2009, the conglomerate announced plans to launch flights from Abu Dhabi.

The ties between Sir Richard Branson and the UAE remain strong a decade on.

In February, Sir Richard presented an Emirati flag that was taken into space on the successful trial run in December to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

“The gift is a tribute to the role played by the United Arab Emirates and its vision and approach to the space sciences,” said Sir Richard.

A number of places across the globe have been earmarked as potential sites for space flights.

Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland, was chosen to be the UK's first space travel hub in 2018.

In July, a deal was sealed with the Italian Space Agency for  potential flights of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo from the Taranto-Grottaglie Airport in the southern part of Italy.

Last December, Virgin Galactic agreed to carry out a dedicated SpaceShipTwo research flight from Spaceport America in New Mexico this year.

The company is embroiled in a race with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX to offer space flights to wealthy passengers.