x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Emirates urged to train its own astronauts

Arab countries can be 'contributors to the future of humanity' with space programmes, says Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia.

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud reads the Quran during his 1985 mission as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle.
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud reads the Quran during his 1985 mission as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle.

ABU DHABI // The first Arab in space says the UAE is taking the right approach as it considers embarking on a space programme. Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family who was aboard a space shuttle mission in 1985, praised the UAE's efforts to train its own space scientists and engineers.

"I salute the efforts of a country like the UAE for its active and gradual efforts," he said. "Saudi Arabia did not build its programme in one day, and no country can import its space programme." The Arab world has come a long way in regards to space travel, Prince Sultan said at the Global Space Technology Forum. He pointed to the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in his country as a turning point for higher education in the region that emphasises the importance of scientific learning.

"Space [once] was the preserve of countries of the First World. There were few astronauts and cosmonauts from the Third World, let alone from Muslim or Arab countries," he said. "There were no national space programmes or serious university research programmes in most Third World countries. There were very few Muslim or Arab space scientists in this area, and most of them worked or studied in western or Soviet institutions."

The expansion of space projects in the Middle East was an important signal, he said. "We really have to begin thinking of ourselves in this region as contributors to the future of humanity," he said. In the summer of 1985, Prince Sultan became the first Arab and Muslim in space when he embarked on an American space shuttle mission as a payload specialist. His recollection of the day remains sharp.

"On 7.33am Florida time, six crew members and myself launched on a seven-day mission to outer space, carrying with us three communications satellites," he told the forum. For Prince Sultan, the aspirational qualities of space mattered more than the technicalities of living in zero gravity or the latest in satellite imaging techniques. Arabs had been involved in space programmes before through support roles in ground-based projects, such as the contributions of Dr Farouk al Baz, an Egyptian American who helped plan NASA's exploration of the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

But Prince Sultan's flight thrust them into the space age in a much more visceral way. It was a message directed at "the millions of young people in the Arab and Islamic world who, for the first time, were exposed to space travel, in such a visible and direct way", he said. Prince Sultan said his adventure had the galvanising effect he wanted on Arab youth. "It is really one thing to hear about others travelling to space, and quite another to see one of your own go up aboard a spaceship," he said. "People need inspiration to accomplish great things."

Space programmes had tangible benefits as well, he said. "Much of the technological development in our modern world was either developed with a direct connection to the space programmes or as a derivative of it, or even inspired by it," he said. And to Prince Sultan, space was a big part of that inspiration. "When the history of this planet is written, it will reflect human achievement and contributions towards all humanity, not one region or race," he said. "It is important to benefit from space-related science and technology for our regional development, but it's equally critical to participate in shaping the future of humanity through knowledge building and scientific co-operation."

The image of a unified planet struck a chord with him during the space shuttle mission. He recalled a conversation after the trip, on his feelings as he looked down upon the Earth. "The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries," he said. "The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were only aware of one Earth." @Email:kshaheen@thenational.ae