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Q&A with George Whitesides, CEO and President of Virgin Galactic

20 Apr 2014

What brings you to the UAE?

We’re here for two events. The first was the Global Aerospace Summit. Secondly, we had a board meeting with our fellow Virgin Galactic shareholders, Aabar Investments, in their parent company’s, International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), HQ building.

Is this your first time in Abu Dhabi?

We are co-owned by Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments. Naturally, with significant Abu Dhabi ownership, represented on our Board, we have been frequent visitors since Aabar made its initial investment in [2010]. We are very proud of our Emirati connections and continue to benefit from Aabar Investments’ ownership.

What’s the background to Virgin Galactic’s deal with Aabar Investments?

Sir Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic after acquiring the rights from Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and Paul Allen, on the world’s first privately built manned spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X prize in 2004 – based on Sir Richard’s ambition and dream to commercialise access to space. Delivering this mandate requires world scale partners and Aabar Investments was a natural collaborator given its financial strength and vision. Aabar Investments has built a reputation for partnering world scale technology initiatives in order to realize value for its stakeholders, including its owner the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC), the Government of Abu Dhabi, and the UAE. IPIC, as you know, is a strategic investment company of the Abu Dhabi Government.

Since then, how often have the two sides met and how has the relationship developed?

In addition to being one of our key stakeholders, Aabar Investments is represented on our Board with two members. Our Board meets frequently to review our progress and to provide strategic guidance to the management in delivering our goals. Both Virgin and Aabar Investments are world scale companies that possess the financial and strategic capability to guide Virgin Galactic to achieve its ambitious mandate. We are very grateful for the financial and strategic value we receive from Aabar Investments. Very few companies can benefit from the support of partners like we have in Virgin and Aabar Investments. As management, we are very proud to deliver on behalf of our shareholders.

What are the main benefit to Virgin Galactic in having Aabar Investments as one of its partners?

What Virgin Galactic is trying to achieve is at the forefront of scientific engineering. This requires substantial investment and strategic guidance. Without the support of Aabar Investments this programme would not be where it is, today. We are one precipice of achieving our first goal – our first flight to space - expected to take place later this year.

Can you give us the latest update on Virgin Galactic’s plans over the next eighteen months?

It is well covered in the press that we are excited about the prospects of our first space flight later this year. Shortly afterwards, we will launch a full commercial service with an inaugural commercial flight which will see Richard Branson and his children become astronauts – followed by a regular spaceflight service, flying the 700 individuals from 58 countries who have already made fully paid-up reservations. IAs the world’s first spaceline gathers momentum we’ll pursue initiatives which will allow anyone the chance to experience space. For example we will see the first series of our reality television programme, "Space Race", follow contestants as they compete to win a flight into space aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo.. The series is being produced by Mark Burnett, the creator of the hugely popular Survivor and The Voice programmes, and will be broadcast by the NBC network.

How important is the UAE to Virgin Galactic?

Abu Dhabi has successfully delivered a number of projects that are both world scale and often first-of-their-kind in their own right. The ambition and can-do attitude of Abu Dhabi, through strategic investment companies like IPIC and Aabar Investments, creates a natural synergy with our co-owners Virgin. Combined, the two parties position us with the unique resources to deliver Virgin Galactic’s mandate.

Do you see Aabar Investments and Virgin Galactic working on any other future endeavors?

We have the ambition to develop the business to include the capability to launch smalls satellites. Naturally, this may serve as a platform to achieve broader Abu Dhabi strategic ambitions through Aabar Investments’ involvement with Virgin Galactic.

You mention that you have a big announcement relating to Abu Dhabi, what is it, exactly?

Aabar Investments and Virgin Galactic are pleased to announce they have opened up one slot for an Emirati to travel into space onboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. These slots currently sell for $250 000. So, you can imagine it’s a huge opportunity for the lucky winner. Aabar Investments will be staging a competition, together with its parent company, IPIC, here in the UAE. The specifics of the competition and the terms and conditions are still to be finalized. For both companies, this is an ideal way for us to give back to the community.

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