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02 December 2023

Virgin Galactic on course to begin commercial space flights in 2011

The first flight on SpaceShip2 will carry six passengers. (SUPPLIED)

By Nissar Hoath

The world's first and only private space-liner Virgin Galactic will begin its commercial flights into space in 2011 with 300 passengers already booked for the gravity-defying journeys.

Virgin Galactic CEO Stephen Attenborough, who is also Commercial Director of Virgin Group of Sir Richard Branson, during a recent visit told Emirates Business the private space tour programme is well on track with its first commercial space flight on SpaceShip2 scheduled for 2011.

"So far we have sold 300 tickets for the two and half hour journey. Nine of the 300 space tourists are from the Middle East, including those from the UAE. We have been selling these tickets for $200,000 (Dh734,600) each. So we have customers from the UAE and 40 other countries around the world. This shows it is a global desire for people who want to become astronauts and visit outer space," he said.

Attenborough said the first flight on SpaceShip2 after completing the test-pilot programme, which will last two years, will carry six passengers with two pilots. The spaceship is larger than SpaceShip1, and has a room per person. "It is the largest spaceship ever built and the reason is that our passengers do not want to sit in a small cockpit. They need to leave their seats for better view of the space."

He said initially the company will have a weekly flight that gradually will be increased to one and then two daily services.

He said size of the spaceship itself is like the interior of a large business jet. "It has lots of big windows. The journey takes two and half hours. It is a sub-orbital spaceship; you blast into the space, get a few minutes top way float in zero gravity to see the fantastic view of the earth and comeback as a fully-fledged astronaut," the Virgin Galactic official said. The great thing about this, Attenborough said, is it gives you that essential space experience that Shuttle astronauts have.

He said: "We are able to do it with a small fraction of the cost, and we will bring down the prices. Any people, without any experience, can do it. You don't need special training or have a PhD. It takes only a week of work.

"You can book it now. The ticket prices is $200,000 and the lowest deposit we require is $20,000. The oldest person we have ready to fly is 88 years old and the youngest is 22."

Referring to the possibility of launching flights from facilities outside the US, he said: "There are no immediate plans, but in future the spaceship can take off from any airport here in the Middle East, including the UAE."

Attenborough said the idea was to have access into space business with the development of a safe, cheap and environmentally benign.

The business, he added, includes taking people, payload and scientists for research into the space.

"Our first market is tourism. The research we have done proves there is absolute room for other players in the market. At the moment there are no other players and we are the only in the space tourism business. The business plans we have show there is profit for us in the end of the first year as operating business," Attenborough said when asked about the outlook of the business.

The budget for the project is $350 million with about $120m already spent. By the time we start commercial operations, we expect to spend $350m. It is a big project for us and will take about three years to payback."

He also said he could see very rapid innovation with private sector involvement – such as space hotels spending a couple of days. "We plan to fly 500 tourists in one year and 50,000 in 10 years. We start slowly and we build up."