Virgin Galactic Sees Space Test Flights In 2011

March 3, 2010

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Virgin Galactic is aiming to launch test flights into space in 2011, but does not need additional financing after selling a stake to Abu Dhabi's Abaar last year, its chief executive said on Wednesday.

The offshoot of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways in December unveiled the first commercial passenger spaceship, a sleek black-and-white vessel that represents an expensive gamble on creating a commercial space tourism industry.

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

Virgin Galactic is aiming for the winged, minivan-sized SpaceShipTwo to rocket tourists into zero gravity in two or three years, Branson said in December.

"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."

Some 330 aspiring astronauts have put down about USD$45 million in deposits for the USD$200,000 ride, including 20 from the Gulf Arab region, he said, adding 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," he added.

The project, with a USD$450 million budget, would see the construction of six commercial spaceships that would take passengers high enough to achieve weightlessness and see the curvature of Earth set against the backdrop of space.

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

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

Whitehorn said Galactic was not in need of additional financing when asked about seeking further investment from private investors.