March 3, 2010

Virgin Galactic Set For 2011 Lift-Off

Virgin Galactic's chief executive on Wednesday that the company plans to launch test flights into space in 2011, and is financially set after selling a stake to Abu Dhabi's Abaar last year.

Virgin Galactic unveiled the first commercial passenger spaceship in December. The vessel represents an expensive gamble on creating a commercial space tourism industry, according to Reuters.

"We've passed a lot of the biggest hurdles," Will Whitehorn told reporters on the sidelines of a space conference in Dubai.

Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, said in December that Virgin Galactic is aiming for the minivan-sized SpaceShipTwo to send tourists into zero gravity within two to three years.

"The spaceport will be open next year and we will hopefully test flights into space next year," Whitehorn said. "I will not say whether it (the start of commercial flights) will be 2011, 2012 or 2013, it's going to be when we're ready."

So far about 330 aspiring astronauts have put down $45 million deposits for the $200,000 ride, including 20 from the Gulf Arab region. Additionally, 100,000 people have shown interest in the flights.

"The biggest challenge is to get regulatory approval to start flying, (but) we are not going to race with anyone, only with safety," Whitehorn said.

The project's $450 million budget allows the company to plan for six commercial spaceships that would take passengers high enough to achieve weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth set against the backdrop of space.

Reuters reports that Abaar bought a 32 percent stake in Galactic for $280 million as it looks to diversify its economy away from oil.  Abu Dhabi-based Abaar is the non-energy investment arm of state-owned International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC).

It also secured the rights to host tourism and scientific research space flights, saying that it plans to build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the seven-member United Arab Emirates federation.

Whitehorn said that Galactic is in no need for any additional financing.


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