UAE, Virgin Galactic Sign MOU that Could Lead to Flights From Emirates

Virgin Galactic has quietly signed an agreement that could lead to SpaceShipTwo suborbital flights from the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The official UAE news agency WAM reports a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed on March 25 in Abu Dhabi by Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and Mohammed Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency.

The MOU “outlines cooperation across a range of areas including plans to bring Virgin Galactic spaceflights to the UAE for education, science and technology research, as well as potential space tourism flights in the future,” the news agency reports.

Dr. Mohammed Al Ahbabi, Director General of the UAE Space Agency, said: “This significant agreement builds on our longstanding relationship with the Virgin Group, with whom the Mubadala Investment Company jointly owns Virgin Galactic. It also reflects the advanced stage of the UAE’s space sector and our rapidly developing capabilities which, together with our partners at Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company, can enable the UAE to contribute to the manufacturing of space vehicles and commence spaceport operations within the next few years.”

George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic & TSC’s CEO, said: “We appreciate the UAE’s long commitment to our programme and we look forward to working with the UAE Space Agency and other partners in the UAE to push the frontiers of microgravity science, as together we inspire Emirati students and researchers to reach for the stars.”

Under the agreement, the parties intend to: plan for a SpaceShipTwo and carrier aircraft vehicle pair that would be operated from the UAE; collaborate to develop a “Center of Excellence” for microgravity research in the UAE and develop spaceship operational plans for UAE’s Al Ain airport.

Virgin Galactic is partly owned by Mubadala Capital (formerly aabar Investments), which is a sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi government. Mubadala Capital has invested $390 million into the company, which was founded by Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic is currently testing SpaceShipTwo Unity at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. In December and February, Unity made crewed flights above 50 miles, which the U.S. government considers to be the boundary of space.

The company hopes to begin commercial flights later this year out of the Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it is the anchor tenant.

Virgin’s sister firm, The Spaceship Company, is build two additional SpaceShipTwo vehicles and a WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane in Mojave to carry passengers and microgravity experiments on suborbital flights.

Last year, Virgin Galactic signed a similar agreement with two Italian companies to conduct SpaceShipTwo flights from Grottaglie Spaceport, which is located in the southern “heel” of the country.

Virgin Galactic, which usually publicizes anything and everything about itself and Branson, has been uncharacteristically quiet about the UAE agreement. There have been no press releases or media notices about it.

There’s also been no information available on the UAE Space Agency’s Arabic or English websites about the MOU.

The Italian and UAE agreements are bound to cause concern in New Mexico about drawing away ticket holders to other locations. The state government and Dona Ana and Sierra counties have poured about $225 million in tax dollars into Spaceport America and related infrastructure.

In addition to annual leasing fees, Virgin Galactic pays the New Mexico Spaceport Authority fees based on the number of flights it conducts from the spaceport. The more flights, the higher the revenues.

It’s been more than 13 years since the agreement to build the spaceport was announced in December 2005. Local residents have grown frustrated as Virgin Galactic fell years behind schedule and the expected economic benefits from the spaceport failed to materialize.

Then-Gov. Bill Richardson promised substantial economic gains in a press released issued at the time:

Construction will begin in 2007 and should be completed by 2009/2010. Branson and Richardson confirmed that Virgin Galactic plans to inaugurate space flights out of New Mexico once construction of the spaceport is complete, and plans to send 50,000 customers to space in the first ten years of operation….

Based on a study done by Futron, a well-respected aerospace industry consulting firm, the annual economic impact of the Southwest Regional Spaceport in 2020 could be in excess of $750 million in total revenues, and exceed 3,500 jobs, including all commercial space cluster space transportation services and manufacturing activities, as well as tourism-related visitor spending. This provisional, forward-looking estimate is strongly dependent on the ability of the State of New Mexico and early commercial space transportation sector entrants to attract vehicle manufacturers and key suppliers to the vicinity of the spaceport.

The majority of this economic impact would be concentrated in the vicinity of Las Cruces and Upham, with secondary impacts anticipated for Albuquerque and tourism-centric localities elsewhere in the state.

Virgin Galactic has approximately 600 ticket holders at present who have put down reservations costing either $200,000 or $250,000 apiece. Branson has said the company plans to begin taking reservations again at a higher price in the near future.