At last week’s unveiling of SpaceShipTwo in Mojave, Virgin Galactic commercial director Stephen Attenborough said that it was the company’s relative strong performance during the current recession—a “substantial net increase” in customers—that attracted the attention of Aabar Investments, the Abu Dhabi fund that purchased a 32-percent stake in the company for $280 million.
But a comment by the head of Aabar suggests that it’s interested in Virgin for a different reason: point-to-point transportation. Khadem Abdulla Al Qubaisi tells Arabian Business, “The point here is to use Abu Dhabi and LA as a hub, or somewhere in the US, and to fly from Abu Dhabi and land in the other place in two or three hours.”
If so, that’s a long-term vision. SpaceShipTwo is not capable of point-to-point transportation (not over any meaningful distances, at least) and it would presumably require at least another generation of technology development to build the systems capable of the faster speeds (and assorted other technical issues) needed to do intercontinental flight: all that would take years to develop, particularly at the current pace of work and investment. Also, there are no plans for SpaceShipTwo, or other suborbital vehicles, to fly out of LAX or other Los Angeles-area airports (unless one considered Mojave, 150 kilometers away, as in the LA area.)
Aabar, though, has some near-term issues to deal with, such as getting its investment in Virgin approved. The Times of London reported Monday that Committee on Foreign Investments in the United States (CFIUS) has started a review of the Aabar investment, giving it a level of scrutiny than only a small fraction of such foreign investments get. The Times claims that the CFIUS review had created “a growing concern” in the UAE that the deal might need to be altered, or could even be blocked. Why CFIUS, which usually limits its investigations to deals with national security concerns, was looking into the Aabar-Virgin deal wasn’t clear; it could be because of Scaled Composites’ other work with the US military, or, perhaps, because of other applications of the hybrid rocket motor or other technology being developed for the system. (Also recall that Aabar is providing Virgin an additional $100 million to develop an air-launch smallsat launcher system using WhiteKnightTwo.)
Al Qubaisi told Arabian Business that he was “unconcerned” about the CFIUS investigation. “I think everything is smooth and there is no problem at all,” he said, adding that he expected the review to be completed in a few weeks.