'UAE a promising place for space tourism'

UAE-based firm Aabar Investments owns a third of Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 glides toward Earth on its first test flight over Mojave, California

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 glides toward Earth on its first test flight over Mojave, California


Would you pay $250,000 to go to space? More than 600 people around the world have, in fact, bought tickets for a Virgin Galactic flight that will take them to the sub orbit.

It may sound like science-fiction, but space tourism is becoming a reality. On December 13, the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, VSS Unity by Virgin Galactic successfully completed a test flight to the edge of space. For several years, companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX have been trying to make space tourism happen.

UAE-based firm Aabar Investments owns a third of Virgin Galactic and talks about using Abu Dhabi as one of their main spaceports for the flights have been ongoing.

Khaleej Times had an exclusive interview with one of the two pilots who flew the spaceship. Mark Stucky, commonly known as Mark "Forger" Stucky, revealed details about the historic flight, his own profession and what's next for the space tourism industry.

What is your professional background as a pilot?

I've been devoted for decades in the flight test industry, mainly to the US government and the military. During that time, I've been lucky that I gained an unusual depth of flight test experience in a wide range of aircraft. Most of my flight test experience has been high performance military fighters but I've also done flight testing on larger and smaller aircraft. I also have years of experience in teaching wing space landing approaches in fighter aircraft. Getting to fly SpaceShipTwo, I wont say it's natural for me, but I think I've been uniquely qualified to fall into that job. As far as how I started flying, I started by teaching myself to handglide in 1970s, when I was 15 years old.

You had a lot of people relying on you and your colleague for this test flight to be a success. How much pressure did you feel during this entire process?

I think it's a self-defence mechanism. I try not to think about those things and I was as confident as I could be. We took the spaceship to areas we never have before and all we have on how it should fly is computer models and those are never exactly correct. There are always simplified assumptions that go into them. My big pressure was that I knew a lot of people who had their hopes and dreams relying on the flight and I was going to take it as seriously as I could to do the best possible job and it did.

When could the UAE start being used as a main spaceport for Virgin Galactic flights?

I can certainly see the market for it and the UAE's location could be such a simple hub for so much of Europe, Africa, Asia. With great weather and accessibility to the area, I could see it being a very promising place for commercial space flight operations.

Now that space tourism flights are becoming a reality, there could be a need for more pilots. How can pilots be trained to fly in space?

I think there was some thought years ago that you could have an airline pilot transition and fly for Virgin Galactic for a couple of years. I think the reality of that is flying a spacecraft involves a tremendous amount of acceleration and energy and you get those skills by years of experience in high performing aircraft, such as military fighters. We have an outstanding simulation where it feels like the real or handles like the real spaceship, but we can't simulate the acceleration and there's no place, even with the centrifuge, where you can properly simulate the flight profile. So, I think it's important that the pilots have a foundation that's based in years of experience in other aircraft where they've pulled tremendous loads and done other things and had to react to emergency situations countless times. If I was a president of a company, I'd be looking to hire test pilots who had years of experience in high performing aircraft.

A lot of people still think the earth is flat. Do you think space tourism flights can help these 'flat-earthers'?

The flat-earthers is a good one. They are people who just want to believe in conspiracies and you can't argue with them. No matter how much proof and data you have, there is enough junk science out there, stubbornness or unwillingness to see the truth, they'll never be convinced and they're probably not worthy enough to be put on a spaceship to get enlightened. But ignoring all that and instead concentrating on the majority, I think the beauty of space flight, it does allow you to see that the world is a smaller place without artificial borders and a fragile place that we need to protect. I think we do get that unique perspective from up high looking down. The more people who have that, maybe will develop more cooperation and understanding among the different cultures and races. We certainly see it when we combine forces with other countries at the international space station (ISS). Other countries themselves can be having tough times, but the actual astronauts and engineers who are working together find out that we all are more similar than we expected and everybody gets along fine. Eventually, politicians themselves will get along better.

What's the next step for Virgin Galactic space tourism flights?

Well, hopefully, we'll see the pace pick up now as we transition from big steps of hard level of expansion to flight that demonstrates repeatability and fine tuning them. In the meantime, we are going to continue to manufacture this on spaceships. So, once they are ready to enter commercial service, they can do so at a rate that enables to start getting down to the large list of customers who have already reserved flights. As soon as that seems to be going well, then, we will be clamouring to build even more spaceships in white knight - motherships - as we set up additional paces of operations around the world and hopefully we'll see one in Abu Dhabi. I was there a couple of years ago and had some meetings on that and it's really a cool place.


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