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Mon 7 Apr 2014 03:03 PM

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UAE-backed Virgin Galactic eyes first flight by end-2014

CEO says first commercial space flight still some months away; remains excited about concept of Abu Dhabi space port

UAE-backed Virgin Galactic eyes first flight by end-2014
(Image Courtesy: Virgin Galactic)

UAE-backed Virgin Galactic's first commercial space flight is still some months away with CEO George Whitesides saying on Monday that it was aiming for a launch "towards the end of this year".

Speaking on the sidelines of the Second Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi, he said they had an internal date in mind, but would not say what it was.

"What we try to do, what I try to do, is to just let the test program proceed at its own pace, so we have a specific date, but I think the point is that it will be sort of towards the end of the year," he said.

Virgin Galactic is part owned by UAE-based Aabar Investments which holds a 32 percent stake.

Whitesides confirmed that he would take one of the latter test flights, before his boss, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson, took off on the first commercial space flight with his family.

"Sir Richard flying on the first commercial flight has been a great sign to our customers that we're not going to let him fly until we think it's ready. Correspondingly, I think I should fly soon before Richard just to make sure that he knows that I fully believe in the technology."

Whitesides said the company was "very focused" about starting commercial operations from Virgin Galactic's first space port, Space Port America in New Mexico, but remained "excited" about the concept of a space port in Abu Dhabi.

"That, ultimately, as we're said in the past, is dependent on regulators in the US and the Emirates as well as stakeholders," he said. "But I do think that prospect is fundamentally exciting both for the future of technology and also science education in this country."

When pressed on what stage discussions were at, he said it has had "conversations with US regulators about the possibility of exporting the system".

"Obviously we've got a new type of system and so this is a new area for US regulators to consider," he said. "What we're trying to do is approach conversations with them in a measured manner so that we do it step by step.

"Commercial space is an area of focus for the US Government. The possibility of non-US customers for US aerospace products is obviously a priority and so we are getting positive attention within the US Government around these concepts."

Whitesides said it was "very interesting" that the global aerospace industry had not yet created a "mock three to five" transport, but noted that the same technology that enabled "reusable upper stages" could enable point to point travel.

"I really think that that's the iceberg if the tip is our initial group of human space flight customers. We remain very excited about this, we're looking at potential concepts that might be both feasible and economically successful. Those products will obviously be more expensive than a first-class ticket, but what we need is for them to be within sort of throwing distance of a first-class ticket or a private jet."

He added: "is it going to happen in a year or two? No, it's going to take many years to sort of set up, first a vehicle and then a network of infrastructure."

"The interesting thing is that space ports, first probably in the United States and then internationally, will serve the backbone of high-speed transport."

He said there were opportunities, pending regulatory approvals, for sub-orbital space flight locations potentially all over the world because "the view is different everywhere you go."

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