Virgin Galactic will start its commercial space operations this year, its chief executive told Zawya.

“We will be going into commercial operations this year with a service that will take people into space and back down, and we believe this will be a major breakthrough,” George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic told Zawya at the sidelines of Milken Institute MENA Summit in Abu Dhabi.

“I believe space will disrupt ( the) transport sector in two different ways. The one that we’re working on is to potentially have a point-to-point transportation between points on the earth surface, so instead of taking 10 or 15 hours it can be done in one or 3 hours, and it’ll be transformative of how the earth is connected and how people are connected to each other,” he said.

“Within five years, there will be a new prototype that would take people within two points on earth’s surface,” he added.

The second mode of transport disruption will happen through commercial space flights that will transport people between space and Earth, Whitesides said.

“If you look at the essence of space technologies - whether communications, transportation, agriculture or data, these are things that feed throughout the global economy, and that’s why there is a space component to almost all major industries now. So, I think that space layer is an important part of understanding how the global economy works, and thus what the investment strategies should be,” he added.

Virgin Galactic was founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson in 2004 with a view to commercialising space flight, and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments (which is now part of Mubadala Investment Co) took a 32 percent stake in the venture five years later, for an initial $320 million, with a view to spending a further $100 million on the satellite launch, according to Reuters.

Speaking at a dinner held for attendees of the Milken Institute Mena summit on Tuesday evening, Branson said that more than $1 billion worth of investment has been poured into the venture to date.

According to press reports, a number of celebrities have signed up to be among the first people to embark on a commercial space flight, including actor Leonardo Di Caprio and pop star Justin Bieber. 

“We have over 600 people who (have) already bought their tickets,” Whitesides told Zawya.

On how much a ticket on the space flight will cost, Whitesides said: “We are still setting the pricing. In the past, it was estimated at $250,000, but my expectation is that the price will go up a bit, and then eventually it will come down. We haven’t finished the pricing for the initial flights yet.”

The initial vehicle due to be used for flights, known as SpaceShipTwo, or VSS Unity, is preparing for its fourth rocket-powered test flight, Virgin Galactic said in a statement in December.

“In the commercial space flight, our vehicle has the capacity to hold up to six people in the back, so these are relatively smaller vehicles, but there will be opportunities to have bigger vehicles down the road," Whitesides said.

“We’ll start with smaller vehicles to make sure that we’ve got all the processes right, as we want to make sure it is really done properly to start, and then we can increase in capacity,” he added.

He said the spaceship will have been flown “a dozen of times” before commercial flights are launched.

(Reporting by Nada Al Rifai; additional writing by Michael Fahy; Editing by Mily Chakrabarty)


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