Virgin Galactic gets $45m in bookings

Virgin Mothership Eve. The $450m project will see the construction of six commercial spaceships. (REUTERS)

Nearly 330 people, including 20 from the region, have deposited above $45 million (Dh165m) to participate in Virgin Galactic's space flight programme, company chief executive said yesterday.

Addressing the first World Space Risk Forum in Dubai, Will Whitehorn told delegates the number had helped proved the viability of Virgin's ambitious project.

"There is nothing complex in our [space flight] system. The complexity has been in proving that there's a business model. We've managed to do that with our investors. The challenge [now] is of actually of going through the process of developing the vehicle and getting the data for a safe, experimental flight test programme. With the aviation background that Virgin has, it's something that we can grapple with, with our partners, quite easily," he said.

Whitehorn admitted Virgin Group's standing as a leading aviation player had helped draw initial interest for a project that appeared too futuristic at its inception in 2002. Looking ahead, Whitehorn said the next major hurdle would be tackling regulatory bodies.

"The big challenge will be the one to follow in terms of the regulatory approvals, the licences to start flying and that's a challenge which will be best coped with by having a really solid, safe experimental programme. And that's why we're having a long programme and we're not saying when we're going to start flying commercially.

"We're not in a race with anyone. The only race we're in is a race with safety. Because safety has to be the North Star for this project," he said.

The offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways had unveiled its first commercial passenger spaceship in December. Virgin Galactic is aiming for the winged, minivan-sized SpaceShipTwo to rocket tourists into zero gravity in two or three years, Branson said in December.

Speaking at the sidelines of yesterday's forum, Whitehorn said the company's spaceport would open next year in New Mexico, USA.

"We will hopefully test flights into space next year. I will not say whether it will be 2011, 2012 or 2013 [for the start of commercial flights]. It's going to be when we're ready," he added.

In addition to the "just under" 330 businessmen who have put down deposits for the $200,000 ride, Whitehorn said nearly 100,000 people have shown interest in the flights.

The $450m project will see the construction of six commercial spaceships that will give passengers the experience weightlessness and views of curvature of Earth set against the backdrop of space. Whitehorn said Galactic was not in need of additional financing when asked about seeking further investment from private investors.

Abu Dhabi-based Aabar, the non-energy investment arm of state-owned International Petroleum Investment Company, in July 2009 bought a 32 per cent stake in Galactic for $280m.

 

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