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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

The final frontier just moved a lot closer

New physics tuition will train a new generation to push for new discoveries

Sarah Amiri, Deputy Project Manager of UAE Mars mission talks about the mission in Dubai. Kamran Jebreili / AP
Sarah Amiri, Deputy Project Manager of UAE Mars mission talks about the mission in Dubai. Kamran Jebreili / AP

It has been nearly 50 years since Alan Bean, who died last week, first inspired the world as the fourth astronaut to set foot on the moon. Today, five decades on, he is still one of a select and elite band of humankind, who continue to inspire future generations to dream of exploring beyond the realms of this world. Those dreams are now a step closer, thanks to a new physics degree launched at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), which will give students direct access to the UAE’s space programme and the chance to help send the Amal (hope) probe to Mars within three years. Bean and his cohorts of US astronauts, who first landed on the moon in 1969, continue to be symbols of tenacity and courage. Despite the lapse in time, that frisson of possibility of achieving the extraordinary is still present in a new, young generation of scientists, on the other side of the world.

The seeds were perhaps first sown when a fragment of moon rock was brought back on Apollo 17 in September 1972, when this country was less than a year old, and given to UAE founding father Sheikh Zayed by then US president Richard Nixon as a “symbol of the unity of human endeavour”. While the nation’s aspirations to explore space have been decades in the making, they were boosted in 2014 with the establishment of the UAE Space Agency, the first in the Arab world, and have grown exponentially since then. With the Mars 2117 project, the UAE plans to build the first human inhabited colony on Mars within a century. Meanwhile KhalifaSat, an advanced earth observation satellite, has been entirely designed and built by Emiratis. Through space exploration, the UAE can seize the future. The 2021 Mars probe and the young, dynamic team behind it will project the country’s power and capability to the rest of the world and inspire Arab youth. They will provoke technological innovation and break down barriers for a coming generation of inventors and scientists.

The UAE space programme and the new physics degree reflect the push towards scientific literacy as the country shifts towards a future-focused knowledge economy. Space travel is, of course, enabled by physics and mathematics. Knowledge forms the building blocks of reaching the final frontier and as Bean showed in 1969 – and as the first Emirati astronauts will demonstrate in 2021 – it is fortified by ambition and inspiration.