Space clubs in Saudi Arabia help to spark interest in the sector

Kingdom's rich history in space exploration includes the first Arab astronaut, air force pilot Prince Sultan bin Salman

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It has been 37 years since Saudi Arabia sent its first and only astronaut into space, but many Saudis remain passionate about space exploration.

Among them is author Mohammad Bahareth, founder of Space Club, a platform formed for enthusiasts across the Arab world to talk about all things outer space.

It has been boosted by Saudi Vision 2030, a strategic programme that has allowed citizens to register clubs that focus on special topics.

Bahareth, 37, received a licence to operate his club last year.

He said the platform was helping to get more Saudis interested in the sector, including space flight, space technology and astronomy.

“We do many lectures and seminars online and anyone who is interested in space is welcome,” he told The National.

“We explain in the Arabic language what is happening around the world in space, such as Chinese projects and the Artemis programme.

“People watch space news on TV, but we’re here to explain what these missions are, their significance and how they can get involved in space, too.”

Saudi Prince Sultan bin Salman, left, in 1985 became the first Arab in space when he was part of the crew onboard Nasa's Discovery space shuttle. AP

The club holds events on its website that are watched by more than 6,000 people, mostly in Saudi Arabia, Bahareth said.

The kingdom has a rich history in space exploration, with Prince Sultan bin Salman, an air force fighter pilot, becoming the first Arab in space in 1985.

He was part of a seven-member international crew onboard Nasa's Discovery space shuttle.

“It was a joyful sight that ignited the spark of space passion in every young soul,” Bahareth said.

Prince Sultan was in 2018 named the first chairman of the Saudi Space Commission and served for three years before being appointed special adviser to King Salman.

Prince Sultan has said space exploration will play a vital role in the kingdom's ambitions.

Saudi Arabia has since increased its investment in space, with plans to explore the Moon and Mars.

Bahareth, whose lifelong dream is to become an astronaut, said he expected the kingdom to launch an astronaut programme.

“They [the Saudi Space Commission] are always surprising us with good news,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s increased focus on space will help its citizens to pursue careers in the sector.

Ghaida Aloumi, 33, is the founder AstroGeeks, a club and social media page for space enthusiasts. She graduated from university in 2011 with a bachelor of arts degree.

She wanted to study a space-related field, but that was not possible at Saudi universities at the time.

Saudi club AstroGeeks holds an astronomy event in 2019. Photo: Ghaida Aloumi

“Back then, space was only mentioned in geography subjects in school and in intermediate and high school,” she said.

“The reason I started AstroGeeks is because of girls who inspired me to bring opportunities locally and internationally.”

Ms Aloumi now wants to pursue a master’s degree in space policy and work in the Saudi space sector.

She will travel to the US to study, but universities in the kingdom including King Saud University and King Abdulaziz University not offer bachelor's degrees in astrophysics.

She said the formation of the Saudi Space Commission “created hope” for many people interested in studying and working in the sector.

She has also followed the UAE’s space programme closely and hopes the kingdom will experience the same “space boom".

The UAE is leading the way in the Middle East, having reached Mars with its Hope probe in 2021 and sending its first astronaut into space in 2019.

Another Emirati astronaut will undergo a six-month mission at the International Space Station next month, as part of the Arab world’s first long-term space operation.

“I was closely tuning into the UAE’s space programme and I was fascinated,” she said.

“I hoped and wished for the same to happen in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia needs to and will join space exploration and the space race in the coming years, I’m sure.”

Updated: September 12, 2022, 4:13 AM