UAE’s space programme to take economy to a new frontier

The country is primed to join the world’s elite in the field of galactic travel and space technology development. The National is among those involved in the drive for the stars.

A presentation by the UAE Space Agency at the National Exhibition Centre in Abu Dhabi in May. Khalifa Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE Space Agency says there are “tremendous” commercial opportunities on offer. AFP
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The UAE is making giant leaps in space, with an ambitious Mars mission on the horizon, The National-led Genes in Space contest, and more than Dh20 billion already spent on the country's wider programme.

But faced with the astronomical costs of conquering the final frontier, the inevitable question is raised: does space pay, or will the money end up in a black hole?

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, was clear about the economic aim of the Emirates Mars Mission back in May, when he gave further details of the UAE’s plan to launch an unmanned probe – dubbed, appropriately, “Hope” – in 2020.

“One man asked me how much it cost,” Sheikh Mohammed said at the time. “I told him it is not a cost, it is an investment.

“Our goal here is to have a study, a laboratory and specialisations regarding gravity, galaxies and Mars. This is just the start.”

Those steering the country’s space mission say they expect both direct and indirect economic benefits from this investment – although acknowledge that measuring the overall impact is not a straightforward task in the short term.

Omran Sharaf, the project manager of the Emirates Mars Mission, says there is “a much bigger objective” behind the project than just reaching the Red Planet.

“It is to prepare UAE scientists and engineers in advanced areas, and to build the science and technology sector, which will contribute directly and indirectly in strengthening the knowledge economy that we have in the UAE,” he says.

National space programmes can foster technologies used for commercial purposes, and encourage support businesses to set up shop in the UAE, says Mr Sharaf, who is also the director of the programmes management department at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).

But while space is a “good way to stimulate the economy”, the total benefits are not necessarily seen immediately.

“There are a lot of indirect benefits. You cannot see the benefits from just one mission or one initiative. You need to have a continuous programme,” Mr Sharaf says. “It is a process that will take time, but definitely it will give back to the economy.”

MBRSC is a partner in The National Space Programme, which hopes to use the initiative to develop the next generation of talent to drive space exploration into the future. The programme kicks off with the Nasa-inspired Genes in Space contest, offering high school pupils an opportunity to travel to the United States to watch their winning DNA experiment journey to the International Space Station.

As well as backing national initiatives, MBRSC is looking at ways to measure the economic benefits of the sector, but Mr Sharaf says this, too, will gain traction when more space missions have been undertaken.

“The more missions you have, the more you are able to track it,” he says. “It is one of the priorities that the Government has asked us to do. Because you can’t manage it if you can’t measure it.”

Space means big business globally, with total activity worth US$330 billion in 2014, according to the US Space Foundation’s Space Report 2015.

The majority of that is made up of commercial satellites used, for example, to beam down TV broadcasts or provide GPS and telecoms services. This is a business in which the UAE already plays a significant role, with several government-owned satellites in orbit and more in the pipeline.

But national space programmes also make up a significant chunk of the global spending: Nasa’s budget for this year stands at $18bn.

The US agency is, understandably, keen to point out the economic benefits of its own existence. Nasa employs 17,293 people, helping to cement the United States’ reputation in science and technology. And its work has led to 1,750 spin-off products and technologies that Nasa says “have improved our daily lives and helped to transform the world”.

Part of the remit of the UAE Space Agency, the equivalent of Nasa in the Emirates, is to ensure that the national space sector contributes positively to the national economy.

Khalifa Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE Space Agency, a key partner in The National Space Programme, says there are “tremendous” commercial opportunities on offer.

“Space plays a big part in the drive to diversify the Emirati economy, creating highly skilled and high-technology jobs, and by inference, a high-tech workforce,” he says.

Advantages include boosting research and development and introducing new technologies that can be patented and sold to foreign space agencies, Mr Al Romaithi says.

But global space initiatives are not without challenges, he adds. “Space is a sector that does have an inherent risk and not every country will have a successful space programme.

“Failure may result from failures in technology, technology integration, poor business models, or poor organisation and management.”

Employees at the MBRSC in Dubai range from lawyers, HR and administration staff to mission-critical scientists and development teams. Because of the international nature of the work, it is not uncommon for staff to have meetings at 5am or midnight, says Mr Sharaf.

Such is the diversity of the space industry, you can walk through the MBRSC and be just as likely to bump into someone wearing laboratory gear, or fully masked-up in the “clean room”, as someone wearing UAE national dress or a suit.

Mr Sharaf points to how space programmes help to build vital human capital and expertise. “In space you need to have all different disciplines in sciences and in engineering,” he says.

But while the Mars mission may not have a set “cost” – there will certainly be a hefty price tag attached. More details of the Mars Mission budget will be announced in due course, says Mr Sharaf, adding that it is being executed in a “very cost-effective way”.

The project will be unmanned – something that obviously brings down the cost considerably. The UAE is yet to embark on a manned space mission and Mr Sharaf says he is not aware of any such plan, although he adds that the UAE has “ambitious goals”.

Manned space missions are where the direct economic payoff really drops of a cliff, says the US-based space analyst John Logsdon, a former member of the Nasa advisory council.

“I don’t think the pay-off from human space flight is economic at all, at least not centrally,” says Mr Logsdon, who is also the author of John F Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.

But such missions do have a wider benefit for the economy, he added.

“The pay-off is shared human experience of doing something risky and exciting, and which says you’re in a society that takes risks and does exciting things,” Mr Logsdon says.

The UAE generated international news headlines when announcing further details about its Mars mission in May. And the excitement was doubtless felt at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi – which has its own space lab, said to be a first in the region.

It provides students with an opportunity to conduct mission-orientated research, partly by using unmanned aerial vehicles that help mimic conditions in space.

Ahmad Bani Younes, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the university, says the UAE is “well positioned to become a regional and global aerospace hub”.

The university aligns its aerospace curriculum with the UAE’s evolving space programme, and Prof Younes says his students have landed jobs with top government entities in the field.

“Our products are engineers,” he says. “We’re providing the human capital the country needs to achieve these ambitious projects.”

Prof Younes says it is “possible” that the UAE could consider a manned mission to space in the future. But he emphasises that to be viable, such missions require “questions that need to be answered” and a community benefit back on the ground.

“The goal is not only just sending the unmanned mission to Mars – they have more investments in the area,” he says.

“When you talk about space, there are no boundaries.”