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Thu 12 Apr 2007 02:24 PM

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Ready for take-off

Space Adventures founder Eric Anderson on the Middle East's role in space tourism.

Eric Anderson says that "getting over the giggle factor" was the biggest challenge in launching his space tourism empire. Today however, no one is laughing. Despite facing initial scepticism over his intergalactic business plan, Anderson's Space Adventures remains the only company on the planet to have sent paying customers into space. Having beaten Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic project in the privately-funded space race, Anderson has brought in somewhere in excess of US$120million by sending four people to the stars. And the fifth space tourist - Charles Simonyi, the Hungarian-born developer of Microsoft's Word and Excel programmes - is currently orbiting the Earth having paid over US$20million for the privilege.

"It's often said that a brilliant idea is a crazy idea just one minute before it is successful," says Anderson. "Many people thought that space tourism just wasn't possible before - yet we've shown them that it is, through innovative thinking, and through being unafraid of pushing the boundaries of what is possible," he adds.

Initially, it was American aerospace engineer Burt Rutan who created the technology to show that space tourism could be economically feasible. He won the US$10million Ansari X prize for his SpaceShipOne project that reached 100 kilometres in altitude twice in a two-week period with the equivalent of three people on board. Funded entirely by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the craft cost a relatively low (in terms of the space industry) US$25million to develop. Having proven to the world that space tourism is viable as a business, Anderson has given birth to an industry that a Nasa/Space Transport Association study predicts will be worth between US$10 billion and US$20 billion annually within a few decades.

With flight packages costing up to US$100million however, it is currently reserved for the mega-rich only. It is little wonder, then, that Anderson is now targeting Middle Eastern investors. The World Wealth Report estimates that there are around 1,000 ultra-high net worth individuals - those worth more than US$30million - living in the region. According to Anderson, the region will provide him with the ideal platform for global growth and he is now stepping up his game to "actively target Arab investors and customers".

"[Space tourism] is something that is very forward-thinking, so forward-thinking countries like Qatar and the UAE are definitely interested. We see the Middle East, particularly the UAE, as a region of growth in space tourism and its infrastructure," he adds.

Last year, Space Adventures announced plans to locate a spaceport in Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), funded by various parties along with shared investments by Space Adventures and the RAK government.

"Ras Al Khaimah is a good location for space flight operations because of its unique airport and space port support facilities, His Highness Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi's commitment to space tourism, and its proximity to Dubai, has made it one of the world's leading luxury tourist destinations," he says. "It's still in its early stages and we are waiting for the sub-orbital space vehicle to be developed but we think it will be ready over the next few years - certainly soon," he continues.

The RAK government will invest somewhere in the region of US$30million into the US$265million space port. After receiving thousands of inquiries from individuals in the Gulf, according to Anderson, the first customer of Space Adventures' RAK operations will be UAE national Adnan Al Maimani, who will pay more than US$100,000 for the first flight travelling to the edge of space from a Middle East nation.

For other multi-millionaires in the region interested in blasting off into space, the scale of the experience depends on the scale of your bank balance. A mere US$25million buys you a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Russian Soyuz craft while US$100million could take you to where few have ventured before - the surface of the moon.

"By 2011, we will send two private citizens to the moon [after] the required manned and unmanned test flights have been completed," says Anderson proudly.

Those with more modest means can take a sub-orbital space flight to view the earth from space and experience weightlessness, all for around US$100,000. While flight prices may sound astronomical at the moment, Anderson claims that packages will be "affordable to the tens of thousands level in the next 10 to 15 years".

"The cost to fly to space in the future will depend on the market demand for commercial space flights. Our goal is to make space flight accessible and affordable for all private citizens through the development of our space ports," he says. Anderson also believes that an increasingly competitive market will help to bring prices down. "Competition within the private space flight sector will promote the availability for all citizens to visit space," he says.

At the moment Space Adventures is without a direct competitor that is actually operational in flying to space. It is surely only a matter of time, however, before others - namely Virgin Galactic - get off the ground. Other potential competitors include's Jeff Bezos, US real estate magnate Robert Bigelow and co-founder of online payment system Paypal, Elon Musk.

Last month, Virgin Galactic finalised an agreement worth US$27.5million over twenty years to operate out of the US$198million Spaceport America facility in the US state of New Mexico. When Spaceport America opens in late 2009/early 2010, the company plans to send 500 paying customers a year to an altitude of over 100 kilometres for around US$200,000.

So how does Anderson's business model compare to that of Virgin chief Richard Branson? "We actually fly people into space," says a smirking Anderson. Anderson believes the development of a "reusable sub-orbital taxi" could play a vital role in bringing space tourism to the masses. "We have the utmost confidence that we'll enable the operations of the world's first commercial sub-orbital flights," he says. "[This] will increase the affordability for people to fly to space and we hope to fly thousands of people every year."

For the ongoing development of the industry, Anderson sees the intervention of governments as key. "Cooperation between the private space flight industry, governments and other organisations will promote the availability for all to travel and explore space," he says.

Although Anderson refuses to reveal any figures regarding his company's annual turnover, he does claim that Space Adventures has been "profitable for five years". Much of the company's revenue comes from its partnerships with a number of global corporations. The group has had sponsorship and promotional projects with multinational groups such as Hard Rock Cafe, Volkswagen and online tourism group TravelZoo.

It was in 1997 that Anderson first created his Space Adventures legacy with the help of several former astronauts and visionaries from the aerospace, adventure travel and entertainment industries. One of the most famous, Buzz Aldrin - the second man to walk on the moon - still sits on the company's astronaut advisory board. However, while the company looks on target for ongoing growth today, in its infancy it almost failed to take off at all.

The year was 2003. Anderson, the ex-NASA employee, had collected a total of US$300,000 in deposit money from several clients who wished to reserve flights with his fledgling space travel business. But then on February 1, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, shortly before concluding its 28th mission. "When the Columbia Space Shuttle exploded, I thought it was the end of space tourism," Anderson admits.

Thankfully for Anderson, his clients were not put off by the Columbia disaster and his mind-boggling business has gone from strength to strength since its inception. So when will the former NASA man, who may have created a mammoth industry, visit space himself? "Very soon," he tells me. "I've dreamed of space flight since I was a child, and plan to go on one of [our] first sub-orbital test flights."

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