Middle East Backer Boosts Virgin’s Spaceflight Dream

 - July 30, 2009, 6:01 AM

Global airlines are still suffering reduced demand for flights, but the Virgin Group’s dream of launching passenger flights into space has received a boost in the form of significant new investment from Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments. The Middle East firm will invest about $280 million to take a 32-percent stake in Virgin Galactic, valuing the subsidiary at almost $900 million.

The development demonstrates that the Middle East financial community appears to have both the appetite and the resources to invest in aviation and aerospace businesses. Virgin has confirmed that it still holds 300 deposits of $40 million each from the first group of prospective space tourists.

Aabar has also agreed in principle to invest a further $100 million in Virgin Galactic’s plan to introduce satellite launch capability.

The company intends to build a spaceport in Abu Dhabi and will hold exclusive Middle East rights to “host” both passenger and scientific research space flights. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which is being developed by the Scaled Composites joint venture between Burt Rutan and Northrop Grumman, is due to begin test flights before year-end.

The company’s VMS Eve spacecraft–Virgin Mothership Eve, named after Branson’s mother, Evette–has been flying since December and made an appearance at the recent EAA AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wis., where the deal with Aabar was announced.