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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Human spaceflight from UAE possible by 2015

Space, the final frontier of yore, now appears nearer and beckons the UAE. In what could spell the dawn of affordable commercial space tourism, the country is positioning itself to reap the benefits by 2015.

A recent partnership forged between the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) and US-based Bigelow Aerospace appears to be a precursor to more exciting times for humans in the orbit.

The agreement envisages a microgravity research and development programme with a potential focus on advanced biotechnology applications as a first step to larger collaboration.

Speaking to Khaleej Times on the development, Michael N. Gold, Director of Operations and Business Growth at Bigelow Aerospace, said: “Human spaceflight carries with it tremendous scientific and educational benefits, but it’s vital, particularly for a country like the UAE, that any national investment in space lead to significant economic opportunities.”

Gold, however, was not specific on dates for the human spaceflight or the exact sum of the ‘lower costs’ involved. “Our launch date for placing international astronauts into the orbit will depend upon the availability of a new, safe, and affordable commercial human spaceflight system. Both Boeing and SpaceX are actively developing relevant capsules now, and we’re hopeful that launch activities can begin by 2014, 2015, or earlier.”

Bigelow Aerospace launched two pathfinder spacecraft, Genesis I and Genesis II, in 2006 and 2007, respectively. These spacecraft were designed to test and validate the company’s next-generation space habitat technology and were successfully flown and deployed on a Dnepr rocket, the same launch system that successfully deployed EIAST’s DubaiSat-1 in 2009.

Established by a Dubai Government decree in 2006, the EIAST is a strategic initiative intended to boost scientific innovation and thinking and put to use advanced technology in the UAE and the region.

“We will be able to provide essentially turnkey astronautics opportunities for a fraction of the costs that would be required to work with NASA and the International Space Station. The primary goal is to dramatically lower the expense of conducting orbital space activities and thereby create the opportunity to access space for nations such as the UAE,” Gold said.

Human spaceflight, for long, has been dominated by superpowers US and Russia. It all began when Yuri Gagarin of the erstwhile Soviet Union ventured to a place where no man had gone before way back in 1961. The ensuing race for space domination between the two continued for many decades until the advent of commercial space travel in the 2001 when investment manager Dennis Tito became the world’s first space tourist, paying Space Adventures $20 million for the trip.

Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte was the seventh and latest space voyager who blasted off on a Russian Soyuz vehicle. He paid more than $35 million to spend nine days on the International Space Station in 2009, and said it was “worth every penny”.

Ahmed Al Mansoori, Director-General of the EIAST, said: “The partnership of EIAST with Bigelow Aerospace is a critical next step forward for the organisation in exploring the potential for human spaceflight programmes. The MoU will not only elevate Dubai to a stronger global platform as a facilitator of commercial human spaceflight but also create more opportunities for people anywhere in the world to take advantage of our initiatives to experience the marvels of space travel.”

The Bigelow Aerospace official said the UAE could sidestep the exorbitant costs, which hovered between $20million and $80 million per mission, according to conservative estimates, and could also leap over other nations in its quest to become a space-faring nation. Developing and deploying space hardware will also become cost effective. “By leveraging the lower costs provided by the commercial space revolution that is occurring here in the US, the UAE can not only catch up with other nations in terms of orbital space activities but could actually exceed them, The key to all of this is the lower pricing.

“The Genesis I and II missions demonstrated that orbital facilities could be constructed and deployed for a fraction of the cost of the International Space Station and we’re excited to pass this benefit along to our friends in Dubai and the UAE,” said Gold..

The module development will take place at the company’s Amer primary manufacturing facility in Nevada. “However, if the UAE is interested in taking on development or design opportunities, it’s an idea that is certainly open to discussion,” he said.

Bigelow is currently developing its first orbital space complex simply called the ‘Alpha Station’. The station will comprise habitats or modules for humans and an Emirati role in the project is likely.

“We have been very impressed by the EIAST officials’ vision and commitment to make Dubai and the UAE an unparalleled leader in space, science, and technology,” said Gold.

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