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Sun 5 Aug 2007 09:44 AM

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Packages to space to be an agent reality

It's only a matter of time before travel agents start selling holiday packages to space and Dubai-based Sharaf travel aims to be at the front-of-the-queue when the opportunity arises.

It's only a matter of time before travel agents start selling holiday packages to space and Dubai-based Sharaf travel aims to be at the front-of-the-queue when the opportunity arises.

"The first stop is to travel to space and once that's successful I am sure there will be more to come," said the travel company's chairman, Salah Sharaf. "I know there is already a project to build a hotel in space and maybe in 15 years we will be selling the whole package."

Sharaf was speaking after Sharaftravel, the only accredited Virgin Galactic space office in the Middle East, revealed it had already taken five US $100,000-$175,000 deposits from would-be passenger astronauts.

"So far we have customers from the UAE, Mexico and Australia," explained Sharaf. "One customer is even considering chartering the spacecraft for a group of his top clients."

The price to fly into space with Virgin Galatic after operations are launched in the US late next year is $200,000 per person, while the cost to charter a spaceship is $1.2 million.

Sharaf said his company was paid commission on each space ticket or charter sale, although he declined to reveal the rate, but one can only assume the revenue-earning opportunities for agents offering space flights are significant given the price tag.

"Space tourism can only become more popular and as more spacecrafts are built, the price will come down," he said. "It's like travel by ship or by plane, originally only the very wealthy could afford this, but now everyone can - it's the same for space travel."

He predicted that within 20 years, the price for a space flight would have decreased to $50,000 per ticket, possibly less, making it more accessible and more profitable.

When visiting Dubai to introduce Virgin Galatic to the UAE market last April, company founder, UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, told ATN his vision was for space travel to become so popular and inexpensive that it would be featured in holiday brochures and sold over the counter by travel agents: "It is quite feasible that we can sell this to the masses," he said.

The Virgin Galactic experience involves boarding SpaceShipTwo, which is attached to the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Following a runway take off the spacecraft will climb to an altitude of 50,000 feet where SpaceShipTwo will be released and then rocket launched at over three times the speed of sound to 70 miles (110kms) above the earth's surface.

When the rocket motor shuts down, all passengers - who by this stage are astronauts - will experience zero gravity for four minutes.

The spaceship returns to earth passing back through the atmosphere using a unique wing feathering technology to ensure stability and minimize heat intensity before making a normal runway landing.

The space flight will last for around two hours and Sir Richard Branson and his family will be among the first to jump on board. Sharaf and his father have also signed up to take this giant leap.

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