Islamic astronomy dates back a thousand years – but a new generation of space explorers are set to go places their ancestors could only imagine.
In September this year, the first ever Emirati astronaut will climb aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in Kazakhstan and blast off into space. In doing so, they will not only enter the history books, but help bring the UAE’s dreams of space exploration closer to reality.
Thanks to a deal signed by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, the Soyuz MS-15 will carry either Hazza Ali Abdan Al Mansouri or Sultan Saif Hamad Al Neyadi on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on September 25. It is not yet known which of the two will be on board, but competition between them is likely to be intense. The second will serve as a replacement.
The agreement to send an Emirati astronaut into space for the first time was signed in Vienna on the sidelines of the UN Conference on the Exploration and Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in June last year. It will be the 144th flight of a Soyuz spacecraft, with the eight-day mission to be commanded by Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka. “Announcing this date is a milestone and a great achievement for the entire Arab region,” said Yousuf Hamad Al Shaibani, director general of MBRSC at the time of the announcement. “For the first time, an Arab astronaut will travel to ISS so that Arab youth can repeat the accomplishments of their ancestors who excelled in science and mathematics.”
The UAE Astronaut Programme was launched at the tail end of 2017 with the intention of selecting and training Emirati astronauts for various scientific and manned space exploration missions. It was originally planned that four astronauts would be chosen, with the goal of sending an astronaut into space within the next five years. The signing of the agreement with Roscosmos has brought that plan forward by several years.
The program forms part of the UAE’s wider mission to become a global leader in space exploration over the next 50 years, with the country investing heavily in science programs, not only to help serve national interests, but to explore the prospects of human life in space. It has also launched a plan to colonize Mars by 2117 and, through the Emirates Mars Mission, is planning to send an unmanned probe to the planet in 2020, making it the first ever mission to the Red Planet by any Arab or Muslim country.
“The Emirates Mars Mission is one of the biggest space missions worldwide, not just in the Middle East,” says Ahmed Farid, an Egyptian spacecraft controller at the German Space Operations Centre in Munich. “With that mission, the Arab world is once again helping humanity in the realm of space exploration.”
Arab interest in the exploration of space is not limited to the UAE. At the end of last year, Saudi Arabia’s Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, the first Arab to enter space back in 1985, was named chairman of the board of directors at the newly launched Saudi Space Agency. At the Global Space Congress in Abu Dhabi in March, it was also announced that 11 Arab states, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Morocco, were to form the first pan-Arab organization focused on space collaboration. The new entity’s inaugural project will be a satellite to monitor climate change.
Such moves are understandable. As humanity moves further into the solar system, it is believed that space exploration will improve life on Earth by advancing scientific knowledge and discovery, driving technological development, and providing economic opportunities across multiple industries. The UAE and other countries in the Arab world want to ensure they are an instrumental part of this journey of discovery, not simple spectators.
“Space exploration is the new internet,” says Farid, who is also an astronaut-scientist candidate at the Nasa supported PoSSUM (Polar Suborbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) program. “It is young and growing and will become the most important knowledge source for our planet. Space is also cooperation. What can you do and how can you be part of a collaborative effort to successfully explore space, to help humanity combat climate change, and to make breakthroughs in medicine? Everyone on this planet should be a part of it, no matter their race or the continent they live on. Once you become an astronaut and look at the Earth from space, you won’t see borders – you will see a peaceful blue dot that has the only known life in the universe today.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Omar Samra, an Egyptian adventurer and citizen scientist astronaut candidate at PoSSUM. “I believe that all nations of Earth need to work collectively together to advance our planetary space capabilities so that we can begin to answer some of the world’s biggest questions. Are we alone in this universe? What can we learn from what happened to Mars to preserve life on earth?” he says. “The UAE is the only country in the region currently active in developing space capabilities. My hope is that other countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia will follow suit in the near future. Space exploration is developing at an unprecedented pace and learnings from space have, and will, propel our understanding of the world forward at increasingly faster levels in all fields of science. The Arab world needs to position itself in a leading role in this domain or risk being left behind.”
Originally Published in Vogue Man Arabia April 2019
Space exploration takes money, of course, which the UAE seemingly has, but the Arab world also has a rich history of astronomy. After all, when scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope first revealed pictures of a newly discovered candidate planet in 2008, they called it Fomalhaut b, the brightest star in the constellation of Piscis Austrinus. Fomalhaut – from Fam al-Hut, literally translated as the “mouth of the fish” – is Arabic. In fact, more than 200 of the stars visible to the naked eye have names that derive from Arabic. Stars such as Achernar (from Akhir an-nahr, meaning “The end of the river”), Aldebaran (from Ad-Dabaran, “The Follower”), and Deneb (Dhanab ad-Dajajah, the “Tail of the fowl”). Why? Because the astronomers of the Islamic Golden Age were the fathers of modern astronomy.
Such heritage is an inspiration to those seeking further knowledge and the development of both science and technology. Hence Al Shaibani’s referencing of ancestors. But that doesn’t mean challenges don’t abound.
“The greatest challenge is making up for lost time and bringing the national consciousness of many Arab countries to the point where they understand that involvement in space is not a nice-to-have – it is something essential for our long-term sustainability as nations on this planet,” says Samra, who also runs Make Space Yours, an educational out-reach initiative that works on motivating Arab youth to become interested in space from a young age. “Many people think space is just an exploratory pursuit and do not fathom its impact on science, security and inventions.”