UAE Becomes Center of Middle East’s Space Effort

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The seven-state United Arab Emirates is quickly becoming the center of the Middle East’s space effort, with agreements with Virgin Galactic for a suborbital spaceport and Bigelow Aerospace to develop an orbital spaceflight program. In the process, it is riding the crest of a new commercial wave in how human spaceflight will be conducted.

UAE might have the first commercial suborbital spaceport outside of the United States should the American government allows Virgin Galactic to export its WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo system.

“We have focused on launching and running safe commercial sub-orbital tourism flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico,” said Virgin Galactic Commercial Director Stephen Attenborough. “However, in the future we may seek regulatory approvals from the US authorities required to take the system and operation out of the US. If we do that and are successful then Abu Dhabi is likely to be a location of particular interest.”

In 2009, Aabar Investments purchased a 32 percent stake in Virgin Galactic for $280 million, with the understanding that a spaceport would be built in Abu Dhabi. The investment group is controlled by the Abu Dhabi government.

Abu Dhabi is the capital of the seven-state UAE federation, which also includes Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. UAE is a constitutional monarchy with a president and a series of interlocking governing bodies. It has the sixth-largest oil reserves in the world and is one of the most developed nations in the region.

Whether the U.S. government will allow the export of advanced space planes and rockets to UAE (or anywhere else) is an interesting question. XCOR Aerospace also has signed agreements with organizations in South Korea and Curacao in the Dutch Antilles to fly its Lynx suborbital vehicle from spaceports in those nations contingent upon U.S. export approval.

Attenborough gave no estimates on when Virgin Galactic would seek export approval or how soon operations might begin in Abu Dhabi. Company officials have said they hope to begin commercial flights out of Spaceport America in New Mexico sometime in 2012. Six UAE citizens have signed up for suborbital flights.

UAE’s space ambitions extend into orbit. On Monday, officials announced that the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Bigelow Aerospace

“to drive joint efforts to usher in a new era in human spaceflight based on innovative technologies, affordability, commercial sustainability, and strong international partnerships.

“As per the MoU, EIAST and Bigelow Aerospace will explore joint efforts to establish a next-generation commercial human spaceflight programme for Dubai and the UAE, leveraging recent advances in human spaceflight. They will work to create a world-class microgravity research and development programme with a potential focus on advanced biotechnology applications, and a variety of other commercial space-related activities.”

Bigelow Aerospace is developing a series of private space stations that it plans to launch beginning in 2014-15 on American expendable rockets. The Las Vegas-based company has signed similars MOUs with organizations in six other countries that want access to space stations.

Bigelow also has partnered with Boeing to develop the seven-seat CST-100 crew transport. That project received NASA funding as part of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV) program last year. NASA will award the second round of grants in March.

The developments in UAE represent a sea change in how space will be accessed in the 21st century. Previously, human spaceflight was the domain of government, which spent billions to send their citizens into the cosmos.

Soon, governments and corporations will be able to order the space flight experience they want from private vendors. Without the massive investments required to develop capabilities and infrastructure, human spaceflight becomes more affordable and the potential market much wider. And it will free up more money for actually doing things in space rather than just getting there.

It’s likely that we will see a growing Arab role in space if the commercial sector develops as hoped. There is an enormous amount of oil money in the Middle East that is waiting for good investment opportunities, especially infrastructure projects.

UAE knows a thing or two about infrastructure. Dubai is home to the tallest building in the world and a set of artificial islands in the Persian Gulf. And what is space development and settlement but a giant infrastructure project in a harsh environment?