1969 to 2117: exploring the Arab world's role in the space race

We examine the region’s grand plan for exploring the cosmos as we mark the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing

Egyptian scientist Farouk El-Baz, third from left, was secretary of Nasa’s Lunar Landing Site Selection Committee during the world’s first Moon landings. Courtesy Farouk El-Baz
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Al Worden knows what it takes to enter a space race. In 1971, he was command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth manned lunar landing mission. He spent 295 hours and 11 minutes in space and was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the "most isolated human being". During his time alone on the command module, his fellow astronauts were, at times, 3,600 kilometres away from him on the Moon's surface.

"I loved it," says Worden, 87, speaking from his home in Texas, where he lives within 10 minutes' drive of Houston's Johnson Space Centre. "I did 75 orbits of the Moon and watched the Earth rise 75 times."

As one of the few people to see Earth from our solar system, Worden knows more than most the significance of the first Moon landing, which took place 50 years ago on Saturday. Nasa's 1969 Apollo 11 space mission, during which Neil Armstrong made "one giant leap for mankind", remains one of the 20th century's most historic events. It captured the imaginations of many, including those of us who will never venture beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Five decades after Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first and second humans respectively to step on to the dusty landscape of this celestial body, space ambition has been embraced by countries across the globe, including the Arab region.

The Arab world's role in the space race

The UAE is helping to lead the Arab world's space charge. In April, it was confirmed that Hazza Al Mansouri will become the first Emirati in space when he takes part in an International Space Station mission this year, with Sultan Al Neyadi named as backup astronaut. In July next year, the Emirates Mars Mission will launch its Hope spacecraft from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan. It will arrive at the Red Planet in 2021 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE's foundation. In 2017, the country also revealed its plan to create the first human settlement on Mars by 2117.

Elsewhere in the Mena region, Morocco last year launched its second Earth observation satellite, Mohammed VI-B. Since 1998, 32 satellites have been launched into our solar system by eight African countries, with Algeria, Egypt and Morocco among them.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - Alfred Worden, an American astronaut and engineer who was the Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission in 1971 attended the Abu Dhabi International Petroleum Exhibition and Conference at ADNEC on Wednesday November 15, 2017. (Khushnum Bhandari/ The National)
Al Worden, an American astronaut and engineer who was the Command Module Pilot for the Apollo 15 lunar mission in 1971. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

But as the 50th anniversary of the maiden Moon landing is marked, it is surely prudent to analyse the Arab world's position in current global space ambitions and ask what relevance the Apollo 11 commemorations hold for Arabs.

Few people in the region might be aware that Egypt played an important role in Apollo 11's success. Farouk El Baz, who was born in the Nile Delta town of Zagazig, was secretary of Nasa's Lunar Landing Site Selection Committee during the first Moon landing. He had not even received his US citizenship when Armstrong and Aldrin traversed the lunar surface. These days, El Baz, 81, travels ­regularly to the Middle East from his home in Leesburg, Virginia to promote desert research such as his trailblazing efforts to apply space imagery to groundwater exploration in the region.

"There was also an important observatory in Egypt, called the Helwan Observatory, that had a station at Kottamia, which is a site that is halfway between Cairo and Suez," says Jorg Matthias Determann, author of Space Science and the Arab World – Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East. Determann says this observatory contributed vital information to Apollo 11's lunar cartography, helping Nasa carry out the Moon landing.

A photo gallery of the 1969 Moon landings:

"The US needed to have good maps of the lunar surface and for that they needed to know the elevation of different features," he explains. "They actually employed an observatory in Japan, in France and this one in Egypt to provide information for the maps."

Now it is the turn of the Gulf states to drive the Arab region's space ambitions. American-Egyptian research scientist Essam Heggy says he is optimistic about the region's maturing space plans. Heggy works at the University of Southern California, which counts Armstrong among its past students, and is an affiliate of Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Establishing a permanent settlement on Mars would be an even more important achievement than the Moon landing of 1969

"The Arab world, as of today, has started several healthy and slowly growing space programmes," he says. "You have space programmes in the UAE, in Morocco, in Algeria, in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia. These programmes are young and ambitious; they could be the seed for regional reform of the role of science and engineering in Arab societies."

Heggy says he is impressed by these plans, as well as by the region's desire "to invest in the human capital of these programmes". He is keen to emphasise that they "succeed with the people behind it, not the equipment you buy". To that end, institutions such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia are playing their part in educating the Arab space scientists of the future. The UAE is also playing an important role, with the Khalifa University of Science and Technology announcing this week that it became the first university in the country to be named among the top 300 academic institutions in the world, a list put together by the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings 2020.

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Getty Images
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Getty Images

Most prominently, the UAE's various Mars initiatives are a stunning advert for the region's grand ambitions for space exploration. However, Heggy says the Arab world's current space programmes should look closer to home and "should be centred on the pressing science questions of desert environments and how their continuous evolutions affect the sustainability and the future of this area". 

"If you want to understand the specificities of climatic changes and environmental evolutions in the Arab world, to study and monitor phenomenas such as desertification processes, groundwater dynamics and dust storms in the extended area of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, then you need to design your own satellites and your own sensors on board these satellites," he explains.

In March, the first pan-Arab space programme was announced with a view to combating problems such as desertification, drought and greenhouse gas emissions. Through the collaboration of 11 Arab states, including the UAE, the mission will begin in 2022, with the exploring satellite expected to have a five-year lifespan as it focuses on data-gathering.

American-Egyptian research scientist Essam Heggy. Courtesy Essam Heggy
American-Egyptian research scientist Essam Heggy. Courtesy Essam Heggy

"But Arab space programmes are still in their infancy," says Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian astrophysicist and professor at the American University of Sharjah. "First, most of them are limited to satellites and little in the exploration domain. Secondly, the UAE programme is broad and ambitious, but it is still young; it needs time to mature and hopefully entice others to emulate it, co-operate with it and strengthen it."

Looking to the past for inspiration

As the Arab world strives to make space a part of its future, it would do well to look to the past for inspiration. Other than Egypt's contribution to the Apollo 11 programme, there is another reason why the region should sit up and take notice of the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. Heggy, who has worked on seven Nasa and European Space Agency missions, says Apollo 11 offers an empowering lesson to the Arab world in its drive to educate the next generation of scientists. "Big changes in history are written by those who explored the frontiers of our uncertainties, pushing the edge between the feasible and unfeasible," he says. "Nothing will ever evolve with scepticism."

That mankind's first steps on the Moon's surface continue to be the gold standard of space-age achievement is self-evident. But should the UAE's ambition to become the first country to build a settlement on Mars come to fruition – there is competition from people such as US billionaire and chief executive of SpaceX Elon Musk – it would bring the country and the wider Arab world cosmic immortality.

"Establishing a permanent settlement on Mars would be an even more important achievement than the Moon landing of 1969," says Determann, who acknowledges that settling on the Red Planet also still raises many ethical, social and political questions. "It would transform humanity into a bi-planetary species," he adds. "Some people consider such colonisation essential for our long-term survival."

With our gaze turning to Mars, another "giant leap for mankind" awaits, and the UAE is preparing for lift off.