The first Arab in space

Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot helped to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization in 1985.

Prince Sultan, left, blasted off on June 17, 1985. Phil Sandlin / AP Photo
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While Arab astronauts have never actually set foot on the Moon, they have made their mark, with some of the craters named back in 1935.

"We have long reached the stars and beyond," Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said in an previous interview with The National.

I first came across the first Arab, Muslim and royal to travel into space as a sticker. Our science teacher in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, had distributed stickers about space and spaceships, and several of them were of Prince Sultan.

On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan, a Saudi air force fighter pilot, blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39 on board the Discovery for a seven-day mission, helping to deploy a satellite for the Arab Satellite Communications Organization (often abbreviated as Arabsat).

The Prince became a hero and an icon across the region.

The mission lasted seven days, one hour, 38 minutes and 52 seconds. He travelled 4.67 million kilometres, and he had gone where no Arab had gone before.

“You realise how small you are, how we are just a speck in the universe,” Prince Sultan told me when I finally met him in person in 2008. I told him how we were given stickers with his image on it, and how I stuck his head shot on my pencil case.

He laughed. “I found myself on the back of notebooks, Thermoses, lunch boxes and pencils. Everywhere. I am not surprised I ended up a sticker.”

When I asked if he was nervous or scared when he flew into space, he said: “If anyone tells you they were not terrified, then they are lying. I prayed the whole time. The launch and landing are the most intense times.”

Prince Sultan, who is a son of the current Saudi ruler King Salman, is also the first person to observe Islamic prayers and read the Quran in zero gravity.

Less than a year later, however, saw one of the darkest days in space-exploration history. On January 28, 1986, the world watched in horror as the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, killing all seven of its crew.

“There was this amazing rush and energy, there were big plans for space in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Arab world, where more Saudis and Arabs were going to go into space, but everything was put on hold,” Prince Sultan said. “This marked the moment the romance went out of mankind’s relationship with space,” he said.

The Prince is also credited with changing the perceptions on the universe of Sheikh Abdul Aziz Abdullah bin Baz, the Saudi grand mufti who died in 1999. The grand mufti had controversial views, including thinking that the Earth was flat. But after talking with Prince Sultan, he changed his views. Sheikh Bin Baz, who went blind by the age of 40, couldn’t watch on TV what we all saw broadcast from the shuttle. He couldn’t fall in the love with the dream of one day going up to space.