Virgin Galactic could be transporting fee-paying astronaut tourists into near space from its Abu Dhabi spaceport in around two-three years time. That was the message from Steve Landeene, Virgin Galactic's Chief Advisor, Abu Dhabi Spaceport, when talking to Arabian Aerospace at this year's Global Space and Satellite Forum.
Landeene, who was Virgin's director at Spaceport America from 2009 to 2010, said that proposals for the Middle Eastern spaceport in the emirate have been put forward to both the Virgin Galactic board and financial backer Aabar Investments. He added that it is conceivable MENA-based missions could start one or two years after Virgin starts its commercial activities out of New Mexico, USA.
Virgin Galactic achieved the first powered test flight of its SpaceShipTwo air-dropped rocket plane last week and now expects to loft fee-paying passengers from the USA sometime in 2014 if everything goes to plan.
"Information has been put together on the possible size and scope of the Abu Dhabi spaceport and that is now making its way up for a leadership decision," Landeene said.
He added that difficult decisions still need to be made - where should the spaceport be, do you go for an existing airport (military or civil), or build from scratch? Also, there is currently no regulatory framework in place for spaceflights from the UAE, plus there are ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) and MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) hurdles to be tackled in respect of licensing the rocket technology outside of the US.
"It is really a case of what outcome you want from a spaceport," he said. "It can be a catalyst for economic development, for tourism and/or for education. The activities you decide to engage in have a direct impact on each of those.
"The most likely way forward is phased approach, starting with an existing infrastructure and then migration as you become more established," he said.
Virgin Galactic also announced its LauncherOne project last year, a new approach to getting satellites into low-earth orbit.
The air-launched LauncherOne rocket would be carried aloft underneath its WhiteKnightTwo mothership before being released. A two-stage rocket engine will then ignite, taking the launcher and its payload on into space. Virgin Galactic said LauncherOne could enter commercial service in 2016 and there is significant interest in the MENA region as it would be the cheapest way to get a small payload into low-earth orbit.
"As satellites get ever more miniaturised, with smaller components and greater capabilities, the cost paradigm is coming down. Add cheaper, faster ways to get them to low-earth orbit and a whole industry for intelligent small satellite constellations opens up," he said.
Landeene said that there were many other good reasons for having a spaceport facility in the UAE. For example, the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo mothership both use a lot of carbon composite technology, which is a good fit with locally-based industries, such as Mubadala-owned Strata.
"Once we get to the stage of having regular flights the vehicle production cycle starts to become important and could become the critical path. You may have a lead-time production of two to two and a half years, so producing the vehicles in multiple locations could become attractive.
Virgin Galactic is also talking with Khalifa University to see how it could integrate its spaceport activities with academia.
"We could have scientists coming here from all over the world – where else in the world, apart from New Mexico, could you have the opportunity to undertake sub-orbital and space-based research on a day-in, day-out basis?" he said.
"The spaceport will offer a set of tools that the whole region can use. It will be a catalyst – students may want to undertake an aerospace degree in the UAE because they could get access easier access to space."
Landeene added that around 600 future astronauts worldwide have now put their names down for Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital rides. Meanwhile, flight tests are continuing in the US with SpaceShiptwo undergoing longer rocket burn periods with a view to a full sub-orbital test flight later this year if possible.