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Thu 13 Aug 2009 04:00 AM

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Rocket man

Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, tells Arabian Business why the space tourism venture will fly.

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Entrepreneur Richard Branson has teamed up with aviation designer Burt Rutan to commercialise his spacecraft concept for Virgin Galactic.
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Company CEO Will Whitehorn.
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Aabar CEO Mohamed Badawy Al Husseiny.
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Formula One champion Michael Schumacher had already pre-booked their space flights.
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Designer Philippe Starck and physicist Stephen Hawking have already pre-booked their space flights.
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Designer Philippe Starck and physicist Stephen Hawking have already pre-booked their space flights.
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Spaceport America, the country’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport, will serve as the primary operating base for Virgin Galactic’s fleet.

Richard Branson's space travel company was seen as a left-field investment, until Abu Dhabi snapped up a 32 percent stake in the firm. Now Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, tells Arabian Business why this venture will fly.

Richard branson has been on the receiving end of a fair few jokes in his time. One of the more memorable was in 2000, when British satirical magazine Private Eye ran a front cover of the entrepreneur dressed as Santa Claus with the caption; ‘No-one believes in you anymore.'

Virgin Trains, his railway operation, was coming under fire for its shocking time-keeping record and Branson himself had just made a failed bid for the franchise of the UK's National Lottery.

But if his latest venture, space tourism company Virgin Galactic, had previously raised eyebrows, it's set to be viewed with significantly more credibility after Abu Dhabi's Aabar Investments bought a third of it last month for $280m, valuing the group at $900m.

"It's an interesting investment; what they can see, we can see," says Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic's charismatic president - and boss in all but name until the company appoints an official CEO in a few years.

"It has been described by many as a visionary investment. It equates to some of the early investments in mobile telephony."

But did Aabar overpay for a business that is still firmly in its embryonic stages? Whitehorn thinks not.

"They are buying a stake in the company and are providing the capital to see this project through," he counters. "This project is already holding $60m of income from potential customers, and many more thousands are still in the process of buying.

"We've got a huge waiting list of people who will buy at lower prices and we've got the prospect of developing a number of interesting business strands, from science to industrial work through to space tourism.," he continues. "They have bought into a company which has its assets in place."

In addition to Aabar's 32 percent equity stake in Branson's company, the deal includes an extra $100m for the development of a vehicle to launch a satellite, something that Whitehorn says is crucial if Virgin Galactic is going to be more than just a commercial spaceliner company.

Few would disagree that the writing is on wall for Virgin Galactic; either to be a runaway success or a stunning flop. But so far, the numbers are looking good. To date some 300 space tourists have booked to fly, handing over $40m in deposits and translating into $60m of revenue.

The firm's ambition is to combine commercial space travel with scientific research, with micro-gravity experiments, scientific payloads and astronaut training.

Whitehorn believes that with Aabar's extra $100m injection, Virgin Galactic can become an industry leader in launching satellites for third parties. Putting a satellite in space via the conventional method of firing a rocket from the ground costs between $30m and $40m. Virgin Galactic will be able to do it for $3m, he says.

"This system we have been developing over the last four and a half years is not a system designed just to take people into space that want to see the planet earth, this is a system that can have a full range of industrial and scientific applications," he says.

Whitehorn himself has been one of the driving forces behind the Virgin Galactic brand, since he dreamt up the name and registered it ten years ago. He describes it as a fascination that stretches back to the nineties "following Richard's belief that we need to look at commercial space for the future, and that sometime the government monopoly on space access will end".

The now president of Virgin Galactic is good friends with Branson, having worked closely with the entrepreneur throughout his career. Whitehorn is a Virgin veteran and has been with the company for 23 years, most notably helping set up Virgin Trains in the UK.

He's no stranger to the aviation industry either, where he helped commission and sponsor aircrafts for Virgin Atlantic - Branson's first venture in 1984. That was with the help of adventurer Steve Fossett - a great friend of Branson's and Whitehorn's who died in a plane crash in 2007 - and aviation designer Burt Rutan.

Rutan has been a central figure in Branson's dream to send paying customers to space. It was he, partly funded by sponsorship from Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who built the prototype SpaceShipOne. The ship won the 2004 Ansari X Prize for the first reusable craft capable of sending people into space at an altitude of 100km. Branson then teamed up with Rutan to commercialise his spacecraft concept for Virgin Galactic.Spacecraft designers Scale Composites, a California-based company, is designing the WhiteKnightTwo, the mothership that will launch the passenger-carrying spacecraft at 50,000ft. Branson took his maiden flight in the mothership, VMS Eve, last month, and announced after landing: "This has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life."

So far $110m has been spent on developing the mothership and the spacecrafts, which will eventually comprise of a fleet of five.

Whitehorn says the total expenditure on technology will total around $350m to $400m by the time Virgin operates its first flight into space.

The timing for when exactly this will happen is unclear at the moment. No timetable is in place but Whitehorn believes that the end of 2011 is a realistic timeframe. Flights will initially run once a week, then twice weekly, then once a day and twice daily, depending on demand.

At $200,000 a flight, the chance to experience weightlessness in a spacecraft 100km above earth doesn't come cheaply. According to Whitehorn, the company aims to halve the ticket price to $100,000 after about four years, a price which would be still be out of reach for most people.

So who exactly will part with this sum of money to go to space? The 300 that have already pre-booked their trips is made up of a "long list" of actors, famous sportsmen and scientists, Whitehorn says.

Seven-times Formula One champion Michael Schumacher, who last month announced a surprise comeback to the sport, is the latest high profile celebrity to have signed up. Others include former racing driver Niki Lauda, French designer Philippe Starck, X-Men film director Bryan Singer, physicist Stephen Hawking and US actress Victoria Principal.

"There is a long list of 300 people, who come from all walks of life. Many are scientific entrepreneurs, some of them are from the financial services industry," Whitehorn says. "We've got a couple of politicians but they don't want their names released at the moment."

Asked if former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is among those who have booked, Whitehorn hedges the question. "I'm not sure whether it's something he wants to do or not. I haven't asked him."

Virgin Galactic will also be responsible for flying the first Arabs into space. Although Whitehorn is reluctant to divulge any names, he claims that there are a number of Dubai-based Arabs who have already pre-booked for their flights.

A long way off, but something also being considered by the Virgin Galactic team, is the option to develop the business into intercontinental travel - something that could revolutionise modern air travel by  allowing passengers to get around the world in less than two hours.

"The idea of being able to get to Australia from Dubai in under two hours, or to LA [from Dubai] in under two is a very attractive prospect," Whitehorn says.

He explains that the system currently being developed would not be capable of intercontinental travel, but that "it is a beginning of a system that could".

"We need different motor technology. There are lots of people around the world developing motors that will be capable of being used in a vehicle to skip around the top of the atmosphere," he explains.  "There is a lot of work going into a new form of jet engine that can also be a rocket motor."

On sponsorship - potentially a massive money-spinner for Virgin Galactic - Whitehorn says the firm has been inundated with approaches, but that no agreements have been reached. "The big household names all want to become sponsors, but we don't think big household names are appropriate. It's going to be much more selective than that," he says.

And what of any further approaches by potential investors?

"We are not going to be open to any more approaches at this stage; we are developing this business with Aabar as our partner," he says, before adding, "if someone came along with an exceedingly attractive offer, no doubt both parties would discuss it with them."

In December, Virgin will begin tests on its spacecraft, the Rutan-designed SpaceShipTwo. This will be the start of many test flights into space, a process needed to convince the US Federal Aviation Authority to grant Virgin a licence.

If  Virgin is to become the first commercial company to be licensed to carry humans into space, it's not a decision the US government will take lightly.

Whitehorn, however, is extremely upbeat on the challenges that lie ahead. So upbeat, in fact, that he doesn't think there are many hurdles left to face.

"I think we have climbed and crossed our biggest obstacles," he says. "The next obstacle is to get everything done and get it done on time.

"We are not in a race with other people to do this; everyone else is a decade behind us in the space tourism game. Above all now, we've got to make sure it's safe."

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iPaw 10 years ago

Deep down we all do beleive in the possibility of there being a Santa Claus.. (Here: Branson) How else can his co generate $60m in revenues 4 years before the company actually delivers its product ! Good Luck Mate !