Virgin Galactic and UAE’s Aabar Investments team up to put Emirati in space

The winner will be given a seat on-board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, when it begins commercial trips into space. For those who have to fork out for tickets, they are priced at US$250,000.(Dh918,250).

The Virgin WhiteKnightTwo mothership, carrying SpaceShipTwo, is expected to go into commercial service next year. Christ Chavez / Bloomberg News
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ABU DHABI // One lucky Emirati will be given the chance to reach the stars aboard Sir Richard Branson’s first commercial space flight.

The winner of a competition will be given a seat on SpaceShipTwo when it begins regular trips into the cosmos in 2015.

Tickets, for those who have to pay for themselves, usually cost US$250,000 (Dh918,250).

The competition is being organised by Virgin Galactic and Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments, which owns a share of the space travel company.

“The specifics of the competition are being finalised but this is an ideal way for us all to give something back to the community of the UAE,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic.

“Without the support of Aabar Investments this programme would not be where it is today.”

Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Company (Ipic) is the parent company of Aabar Investments and will also be involved in the competition.

Aabar and Virgin also plan to build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi by 2016 and Mr Whitesides said that the UAE was the perfect location for the facility.

“Abu Dhabi has successfully delivered a number of projects that are world scale and often first of-their kind in their own right. The ambition and can-do attitude of Abu Dhabi – through strategic investment companies like Ipic and Aabar Investments – creates a natural synergy with our co-owners Virgin,” he said.

Before this space port is built, the inaugural space flight is due to launch from New Mexico on Christmas Day this year. Mr Branson and members of his family are expected to take the seats aboard this first mission.

Soon after this, the regular commercial flights are due to begin aboard SpaceShipTwo.

According to Mr Whitesides, 700 would-be astronauts from 58 different countries have already paid the full amount.

“As the world’s first spaceline gathers momentum, we’ll pursue initiatives that will allow anyone the chance to experience space. For example, we will see the first series of our reality television programme.” he said. Mark Burnett, the creator of the Survivor reality show, is signed on to direct Space Race, which will follow contestants as they compete to win a flight aboard SpaceShipTwo.

It is was not confirmed whether the Emirati astronaut competition would be a part of this show.

Mr Whitesides was in the UAE for the Global Aerospace Summit as well as a meeting with shareholders at Aabar.

Sir Richard Branson bought the rights to the designs of SpaceshipOne, the first privately funded craft to go into space, in 2004.

Aabar then paid $280 million for 31.8 per cent of Virgin Galactic’s holding company in 2009, and later raised its stake to 37.8 per cent.

When fully operational, the space journey is expected to give passengers five minutes of weightlessness and the opportunity to see Earth for 1,600 kilometres in all directions.

Among the passengers who are believed to have signed up for a ride on SpaceShipTwo are celebrities such as Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Katy Perry and Justin Timberlake.

nalwasmi@thenational.ae