It felt like half the country was holding its breath.
The delicate parachute floated down against a dusty blue sky, holding the lives of three astronauts in its taut strings.
Hazza Al Mansoori returning to Earth, after eight days and approximately 128 orbits of the globe. The Emirati fighter pilot is the UAE’s first astronaut, and the first Arab to set foot on the International Space Station.
His landing on the Kazakh steppes was perfect. The former fighter pilot emerged from the Soyuz spacecraft grinning broadly. As his crew covered him with an Emirati flag, he gave the thumbs- up sign to the cameras.
Only one short year ago, Al Mansoori and his back-up Sultan Al Neyadi were just military men. Then Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and ruler of Dubai announced the start of the astronaut programme on Twitter.
More than 4,000 men and women applied, and eventually father- of-four Al Mansoori was picked along with Al Neyadi as back-up. They immediately started an intensive training programme in Star City in Russia, rebuffing any suggestions of space tourism.
“Normally astronauts train for five years,” Al Neyadi explains, “But this was accelerated. It has been really tough.”
“It was hard to digest,” adds Al Mansoori. “The Soyuz spacecraft is all in Russian. All the buttons… the first time I sat down…it is like alien letters. [I asked myself] how can I learn all of this?”
While in space Al Mansoori carried out experiments on bone condition, body composition and the effect of space flight on the endocrine system, while keeping up a running commentary on social media about his experiences. One night he dressed up in the traditional white kandoora paired with a white ghutra, and served his fellow crew members Emirati speciality dishes for dinner. Apparently the balaleet, madrooba and saloona went down well with the other astronauts.
A few days after he landed in Kazakhstan, Al Mansoori faced the media. “I learned a lot during those eight days,” he said, looking fresh and fit after his extraordinary mission. “Now, my mission is to transfer this experience and the whole knowledge I got from the training here in Star City, and onboard the station to the next person. And I hope he will do it better than me.”
Knowledge transfer has always been a key strategy of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), which is the nerve centre of the UAE’s space activity. It started with their satellite programme in 2006, when a group of Emirati engineers travelled to South Korea to learn the know-how of spacecraft. Only 12 years later, those same scientists launched their own 100 per cent made- in-the-UAE satellite, Dubai Sat1.
The country’s space programme has developed exponentially since those days, and shows no sign of slowing down. There are the satellites; Dubai Sat 2 and KhalifaSat; there is the Emirates Mars Mission; which plans to send a probe named Hope to the Red Planet in 2020, and there is the 2117 Mars project; which is the UAE’s plan to build a city on Mars. Al Mansoori even hinted of a bigger astronaut programme in his final tweet from the International Space Station, “We are about to undock…We are not done yet, and we will never be. To bring back the golden era of Arab astronauts.”
Space is an expensive and ambitious field for a country of less than 10 million people. It has a high risk reward ratio, although so far the MBRSC has seen very few failures. The UAE’s fourth reconnaissance satellite, the Falcon Eye 1 was lost, after the Vega rocket propelling it into space suffered a “major anomaly”, but Falcon Eye 2 is due to be launched by the end of the year. The Hope Probe is a riskier enterprise, with a greater chance of something going wrong.
But the astronaut programme has been a huge success, turning Al Mansoori and Al Neyadi into instant celebrities, and capturing the imagination of young Emiratis. Dozens of teenagers crowded into a recent event organised by the MBRSC, where they took part in workshops on the Hope Probe. One of the youngsters, Noor, explained her enthusiasm, “The astronaut programme and the Mars Mission inspire our generation. I hope in the future to be a part of it.”
Alia agreed with her friend, “As a student it is a good chance for us to get involved in this field. I changed my major in university because I really want to work with MBRSC or the UAE Space Agency.”
The teenagers’ excitement and pride must be music to the ears of the head of the UAE Astronaut Programme, Salem Al Marri. More than half of the staff at the MBRSC are women, and his department is all part of a wider plan to stir national pride.
He explains, “The last Arab that went into space was the Syrian astronaut in 1987, and before then was the Saudi, so that is 30 years ago. So anyone under 30 could not associate with somebody from their region or country going into space, so the mentality [was] that it is not for something like us. We are inspiring the next generation, we are inspiring the current generation, and we are inspiring the generation that is a little bit older as well.”
The UAE’s passion for space dates back to the birth of the country, which coincided with the space race for the moon. A few years after the first lunar landing, the three American astronauts from the Apollo 17 mission visited the UAE’s founding President, Sheikh Zayed and brought him a tiny fragment of moon rock. Pictures from the time show him, alongside Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, intently studying a model of their shuttle.
But how has that enthusiasm endured through the years?
“The Emirates have always been at the intersection of important trade routes, and transportation has always been very important to the economy,” explains Dr. Jörg Matthias Determann, the author of Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East.
“It started with shipping, then aviation…. so space is just the next frontier. Also the country has ambitions regionally, which means it has enemies and rivals which it competes with economically and militarily. As other nations around the UAE develop space technology, their own initiatives enable them to keep up.”
Soft power is also a factor. Other regional players have already developed popular satellite news channels, which the UAE might want to replicate using its own network of orbiting craft.
But the biggest driver behind the UAE’s $6bn investment in space is economic diversification. Like many Gulf countries, the UAE’s leaders are trying to shift away from their reliance on oil and gas, into sectors like tourism and technology.
“They want to get more Emirati nationals excited about studying physics, engineering or mathematics at university,” explains Determann.“And so this astronaut mission is part of trying to get young Emiratis enthusiastic about space, about science and ultimately to encourage them to choose careers that could contribute to a high-tech, knowledge-based economy.”
This sounds good in principle, but not all the experts are convinced the UAE will be able to make the economic transition, at least not in the short term. Professor Sa’id Mosteshar, the director of the London Institute of Space Policy and Law in London reckons the policy is back to front. “It is very often thought that if we have a space programme then we will have better engineers, but if you look at countries that do have space programmes, they had good scientists and then they went into space.”
The UAE is making fast work of advancing its space knowhow. The Emirati team working on the Hope Probe to Mars have nearly completed their task. The car-sized spacecraft will be launched into space next year, and if it all goes to plan, it will arrive in Mars six months later.
The timing is important, as Al Marri explains: “If we succeed, that will coincide with 50 years of the UAE. It is a great message to send to people – in 50 years we have achieved a lot on land, and in space.”
The mission certainly elevates the UAE into a select group of countries with a Mars mission; in 2020 the US, India, China and Europe will all be launching rockets in the Red Planet’s direction. The Hope Probe is specifically designed to measure Mars’ atmosphere over a 24-hour period. The harvested data will then be shared with the world, in the spirit of space diplomacy.
Building ties with other countries is a major strategy of the UAE’s space mission, as crystallised in Al Mansoori’s post-trip tweets. “We have collaborated with Roscosmos, NASA, Jaxa, and ESA for this mission. This truly has been an international collaboration and I am humbled to have been part of this.”
The relationship-building exercise seems to have worked. Speaking to this magazine, a NASA spokesman congratulated the UAE for its mission, and emphasised the two nations’ growing ties. “As NASA looks toward…human missions to explore Mars – achievements that will be made possible by leveraging important contributions from our international and commercial partners – we welcome the opportunity to expand our collaboration with the UAE Space Agency as it builds capabilities on Earth, in low-Earth orbit, and beyond.”
Exploring Mars’ atmosphere is just the start of the UAE’s ambitions for the Red Planet. In 2017, on the sidelines of the World Government Summit, Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, made the most extraordinary statement. The UAE was going to build a city on Mars by 2117. The UAE’s rulers were speaking to some of the world’s most powerful leaders and deep-thinkers, and they were serious. The delegates must have been dumbfounded.
But the world underestimates the Emiratis at its peril. Just a few months later, the MBRSC announced a $140m simulation project in the desert. ‘Mars Science City’ is being designed by Bjarke Ingels of BIG Architects, and is slated to span 1.9 million square feet, making it the largest of its kind in the world.
This centre illustrates the breadth of the UAE’s space ambitions. Despite competition from the Chinese, who have already set up their own Mars simulation centre in the Qaidam Basin, in western China, the Emiratis are determined to place themselves at the forefront of this new space race. Bjarke Ingels believes the UAE is leading the world. “Dubai has, more than any other government, committed the resources to focus on speculating and inventing, and making the future happen.”
The UAE’s media office says the plan is to create a “viable and realistic model to simulate living the surface of Mars”.
Ingels explains, “We will use the same techniques as we’re currently anticipating we will be needing in order to build a city on Mars. We are going to create an inflatable membrane to create pressurised environments, where we can have a controlled temperature. We’re going to use 3D printing with the local sands, here in Dubai it is going to be Emirati sand, of course on Mars it will be Martian. But 3D printing makes sense because we don’t have factories on Mars.”
In four years time, once the prototype is completed, a team of astronauts and scientists will live in it for a year, and attempt to create their own oxygen, food and water. It’s the first step towards the ‘Mars 2117’ project, but there is a chasmic difference between a simulation centre and a city on a different planet. Space scientists do not even know if humans can survive the journey to Mars, considering the sun’s deadly cosmic rays, the radiation, and the perilous decline in astronauts’ bone and muscle density.
Architect Ingels insists success is “inevitable” and it’s just a question of perspective. “Five hundred years ago when [the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand] Magellan circumnavigated the globe for the first time, it took him three years…. We can get to Mars in three months, probably on a journey that is going to be less dangerous than it was to sail across the Atlantic 500 years ago.”
So presuming the world’s space scientific community overcome the obstacles, could the UAE really build a city on Mars in just a century’s time? Determann thinks it is possible, but with a caveat. “It is very, very ambitious, but with a time-frame of 100 years, I think that it is possible. If the UAE keeps its focus on Mars and sees it really as a project of 100 years, I consider it possible for the UAE to succeed with that.”
However space science is already a crowded market. With state players like NASA, Roscosmos and the European Space Agency, and commercial companies like Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, it is hard to see how the UAE can compete on the global stage, or even create an economic impact at home.
But what if the Arab nations worked together? In March, the UAE and 10 other countries including Saudi Arabia, signed the first pan-Arab agreement on coordinating national exploration programmes, with the ultimate aim of setting up an Arab space agency. The first joint project will be a satellite to monitor greenhouse gases. The UAE is taking the lead, and the secretary for the group will be based in Abu Dhabi. Al Marri describes the move as a “big step towards cooperating together”.
It is not the first time Gulf countries have collaborated in space. ArabSat was founded in 1976 by the 21 member-states of the Arab League. The Riyadh-based body has been responsible for managing over a dozen satellites, but further collaboration seems unlikely.
Relations between members of the League have broken down due to regional disputes over security, and suspicion reigns. Determann believes further cooperation is unlikely. “It could cooperate in limited areas, but I fear that with so much distrust and so many rivalries, I do not think they will be able to go into a common missile development programme, or anything that would involve one country sharing a huge amount of security-relevant information.”
Leveraging its regional allies is only one of the UAE’s potential strategies, as the country is already partnering with futuristic private companies, with their eye on monetising space tech and tourism. In a coup for the UAE, Virgin Galactic recently announced plans to build its first spaceport in the Middle East in Al Ain Airport. Tickets for a suborbital flight will cost around $250,000, with more than 600 already sold.
But if you look behind the story, it starts nearly a decade ago, when Abu Dhabi’s Aabar Investments bought a 31.8 per cent stake in Virgin Galactic. The space start-up is set to go public by the end of the year, raising about $800m. Deals like this boost the UAE’s position in the space race, and the country is ready to invest major sums of money in bold innovations. Perhaps one day a Virgin Galactic spacecraft could leave Al Ain Airport to take you on holiday to Mars.