Edging into Orbit

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Hoping to emerge from the long shadow cast by its flashy sister Dubai, Ras al-Khaimah has turned its attention to outer space to help brand the emirate as the UAE's galactic hub.

Since the beginning of 2006, reports have been brewing that Ras al-Khaimah will become one of the world's first commercial space centres. Speculation was confirmed on February 20 when Space Adventures, one of the leaders in civilian space flight, and the government of the emirate reached an agreement to build a spaceport adjacent to Ras al-Khaimah's airport.

"Since we made the initial announcement last month of our partnership with His Highness Sheikh Saud and the development of a spaceport in Ras al-Khaimah, we have received thousands of inquires from individuals in the Gulf region, specifically the UAE, who are interested in commercial spaceflight and want to fly," Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, declared on the company's web site in March.

The government of Ras al-Khaimah has confirmed that it has entered into a partnership with Space Adventures, saying that the emirate's total investment will be $30m, including a medical facility, hangars and accommodation.

Reports are that the ruling family and the department of civil aviation have already granted clearance for sub-orbital flights in Ras al-Khaimah airspace, and the next step will be finalising the shareholder agreement, which is expected to be completed by the beginning of the summer. According to current plans, Space Adventures will launch its first flight by 2008.

Adding to the excitement was the prospect that Adnan al-Maimani, a UAE national, would be one of the first passengers to take the sub-orbital flight.

"I am honoured to represent the UAE as the first national to fly to space, but even more thrilling is that I'll launch from Ras al-Khaimah," al-Maimani told reporters on April 2. "I have been interested in space exploration as long as I can remember."

Space Adventures apparently has so far invested only around $100,000 into its UAE venture, part of a $265m investment that the company indicated it will make to develop its infrastructure around the globe. Singapore and the US have already been fingered as the other likely locations for the company's landing hubs.

Back in 2001, Space Adventures made Dennis Tito the first space tourist, followed by Mark Shuttleworth in 2002 and Greg Olsen in 2005. Each paid over $2m for a 10-day mission to the international space station.

The recent project for sub-orbital flight from Ras al-Khaimah will not be nearly as expensive, but it still should be out of the range of the modest income earner. Space Adventures says its flights will cost around $100,000, for a 30-90 minute trip, which will include up to five minutes of weightlessness and views of the earth from 100 km.

The project is a tie-up between Space Adventures and the Ansari family, who put up the majority of the $10m X-Prize, awarded to the first successful civilian flight 100 km above earth, the internationally recognised boundary of space.

Other space hopefuls are also looking seriously at Ras al-Khaimah as a destination to launch its spacecraft.

Rival Virgin Galactic, a partnership between Richard Branson and X-Prize winner Burt Rutan, has often visited the UAE and talked down Space Adventures' seeming advantage in the field.

"A lot of companies around the world are now offering space travel, but no one else has made the same progress as us," said Richard Branson to Arabian Business, a Dubai-based business magazine, in early April, "I don't want to name any companies, but we have looked at all the different kinds of technology. We looked at Russian technology and we dismissed it. We looked at a lot of US technology, and we dismissed it."

Ras al-Khaimah's space facilities could be a possible compliment to Virgin's first announced spaceport in New Mexico, due to take tourists into space by the end of 2008. Reports are that Branson has made trips to the emirate's airport to investigate basing some of his operations there, though so far no official announcements have been made.

Branson claims that 45,000 applicants have already put down $20,000 out of $200,000 fees for Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital flights.

Other companies like Rocketplane Kistler and PlanetSpace are also joining the race to develop the first commercial sub-orbital flight.

Although there has been some talk about Bahrain and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries being considered as landing locations, industry experts still are tipping Ras al-Khaimah as the frontrunner to be the first in the Middle East to kick off a spaceport.

Regardless of which is first, the jockeying among companies can only be good news for Ras al-Khaimah, as publicity campaigns - especially from PR-friendly Virgin - will vault the emirate even further into the limelight.

With its new airline, RAK Airways, aiming to be operational by the first quarter of 2007, the government is keen to highlight the emirate's growing tourism infrastructure, and building one of the world's first spaceports is a good way to show its commitment to aviation.

At the same time, by playing up the emirate's unique characteristics, like its budding space industry, the hope is to further differentiate Ras al-Khaimah from its fellow emirates - and other countries in the region.

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