Branson’s space flights bring stars to Middle Eastern eyes

August 2nd, 2008 - 2:29 pm ICT by IANS  

By Aroonim Bhuyan
Dubai, Aug 2 (IANS) When Virgin Galactic unveiled its commercial space travel mothership WhiteKnightTwo (WK2) in the Mojave desert in the US this week, Debbie Samoody became the latest resident of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to sign up for Richard Branson’s flight to the stars. “I have a big smile on my face every time I think about it,” Samoody, 28, told the media here after booking her seat at Virgin Galactic’s Accredited Space Office in Dubai.

“It’s a big dream. Whenever I watched a movie about space I used to think what it would be like to watch the earth from a different angle,” she said.

By all accounts, many in the UAE as well as in other countries in the Middle East share Samoody’s dream, a trend that Virgin Galactic noticed early and opened its office in Dubai.

“The Middle East is a very exciting market for Virgin Galactic,” Sharon Garrett, head of space marketing and PR at the Virgin Galactic Accredited Space Office here, told IANS in an e-mail interview.

“Already we have one booking for a private charter by a Dubai-headquartered company and several bookings by individuals,” she added.

According to Garrett, the UAE is the country in this region where people have shown the maximum interest in space travel. In fact, she has been quoted in the media as saying that this Gulf nation has regularly been the top sales performer globally as residents signed up to take part.

But Virgin Galactic has realised that the potential lies all over the region as well.

That was why the company decided to expand its sales operations here, and in May this year, invited bids from travel agents across the region to what it called “sell Space”.

Though Garrett declined to divulge details of the number of bookings made from this region or the backgrounds of the people who have booked, she said that people from the region found representation in all three booking deposit categories that Virgin Galactic is offering.

“Our ticket sales in the Middle East have representation in all three deposit categories - Founders, Pioneers and Voyagers,” she said.

Under ‘Founders’, those who want to be among the first 100 people to go on Virgin Galactic’s space flights can book their names with an upfront deposit of $200,000, the full price of the ticket.

Pioneers are those who want to be among the first 1,000 space travellers. They can book their names with deposits ranging between $100,000 and $175,000 and pay the remainder just before the flight.

Voyagers are those who want to go on a space trip immediately after the Pioneers. Those booking under this category will have to pay an initial deposit of $20,000 with the remainder to be paid in later stages.

Samoody, who has logged 100 solo flying hours training for a commercial pilot licence, has booked under the Voyagers category and hopes to realise her dream by May 2010.

But, as she was quoted as saying: “It’s worthwhile, it’s so unique, it doesn’t have a price. You live once, you had better make the most of it.”

As for the first UAE national who will get to fly on a Virgin Galactic flight, Garrett said: “Ibrahim Sharaf will be the first Emirati to go to space. The exact date of his flight is still undetermined but could be as early as 2009.”

For Sharaf, it is literally going to be a case of “space - the final frontier”.

Sharaf, president of the UAE-based Sharaf group of companies, is an intrepid traveller.

His adventures include visiting the North Pole on two separate occasions and a 24-day journey across Siberia.

His most recent adventure was a journey to the ‘Pole of Cold’ located in the Northern Hemisphere in the Republic of Yakutia in Russia, where temperatures reach a staggering 70 degrees Celsius below zero.

In signing up for the Virgin Galactic under Founders category earlier this year, Sharaf said: “During my life, travel has played an important role in shaping who I am today… I am very excited about going to space with Virgin Galactic, it’s a once in a lifetime experience for me. Today, sub-orbital journeys represent the ultimate travel, if not, life experience.”

According to Garrett, ever since Virgin Galactic started selling space tickets in 2005, over 250 space enthusiasts have signed up with deposits amounting to $36 million.

The first commercial space flight is scheduled for the end of 2009, the same time Garrett said Sharaf has a chance.

Each trip will have six passengers and two pilots and last around two-and-a-half hours.

The spacecraft will fly at around 360,000 feet and reach a maximum speed of 2,500 miles per hour or over three times the speed of sound.

Though the operations will initially start with one flight a week, these are going to increase rapidly.

“The frequency of Virgin Galactic flights will be once a week when we commence operations. This is projected to grow to two flights per day within the first five years of operation,” Garrett said.

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