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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

UAE ahead of the curve in space exploration, says Nasa astronaut

Michael Lopez-Alegria said space teaches tolerance and humanity

Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former Nasa Astronaut shares his wisdom and insights into space travel. Antonie Robertson / The National
Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former Nasa Astronaut shares his wisdom and insights into space travel. Antonie Robertson / The National

A record-breaking Nasa astronaut has praised the UAE’s “commitment” to space exploration.

Speaking on a visit to Abu Dhabi, Michael Lopez-Alegria, 60, said the country’s pace of development in the sector was impressive.

Since its establishment in 2014, the Emirates space programme has continued to expand significantly.

Central to its aims is the Emirates Mars Mission, which hopes to place a probe named Amal (Hope) into orbit around the Red Planet by 2021.

“It is remarkable how much progress has been made (in the UAE),” Mr Lopez-Alegria said.

“The view from the outside of the UAE is that it is almost the biggest player on the stage now because it’s making so much effort and showing so much interest.

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“It’s pretty clear that there is a lot of commitment on the part of the government to get involved in space.

“It’s unlike any that I have ever seen in terms of the pace and the steepness of the curve. It is noteworthy for sure.”

Mr Lopez-Alegria, a Spanish-American astronaut who has logged more than 257 days in space, is in the country to speak at an event to encourage young Emirati students to consider a career in the sector.

He described the “breathtaking” views he had witnessed during some of his missions and spoke of the increased sense of humanity becoming an astronaut had given him.

“Those of us who had that experience (in space) have a bit of a different perspective of life than we did before we left,” he said.

“It’s more about protecting the planet and being more tolerant and more patient and understanding; less prone to getting involved with conflict.

“Because we are all crew members on the same spacecraft, which is planet Earth, and we want to have a good life.”

Mr Lopez-Alegria is a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions and one International Space Station mission.

He began his career as an astronaut in 1992, inspired by Neil Armstrong “and others that walked the moon” when he was just 11-years-old.

Today, he holds the Nasa record for the longest cumulative amount of time spent on space walks – a staggering 67 hours.

Recalling one mission over the Caribbean Sea, he said he looked down “and the colours were just breathtaking”.

“For some reason I have a snap of this moment in my head and it was pretty spectacular,” he said.

Addressing the students at Khalifa University on Sunday, Mr Lopez-Alegria said the UAE’s space programme would not just generate headlines, but also impact on the nation’s economy.

Single space flights often failed to catch long-term interest, he said, but a sustainable programme backed by the proper financial investment could have real impact.

“This is not just a one-time thing; this is a way to help diversify the economy,” he said. “I think it will stick around for a long time.”