Space for dreams

With the annual Perseids meteor shower expected to be at its most brilliant tonight, the Dubai astronomer Hasan al Hariri talks about his lifelong fascination with the stars.

The Dubai office of Hasan al Hariri looks like the aftermath of a pre-teenage boy's birthday party. Al Hariri is Dubai's most prominent amateur astronomer, the chief executive of the Dubai Astronomy Group, and (apparently) an avid collector of space-related playthings. To get to his desk, you must first navigate a clutter of toy robots, model rockets, mini-moon rovers and a man-sized, black metallic object that al Hariri identifies as a fully robotic telescope.

A recent gift from the local business group Thuraya, the telescope is no toy - it is worth somewhere in the region of half a million dirhams, and is said by al Hariri to be the largest device of its kind in the UAE. Certainly, when the telescope is finally deployed it will be a very big deal for the Dubai Astronomy Group, the club al Hariri founded as a young space buff over two decades ago. "If they built a Palm Island on the Moon," he says, "you could look at it with this."

If you live in Dubai and have even a passing interest in the stars, you'll have heard of al Hariri. Any time there's an astronomical event, he is in the local media, telling us where, when and how to see it. He also runs the occasional excursion into the desert (there's one at Bab al Shams tonight, to observe the Perseids meteor shower) allowing local residents to fulfill what he believes to be a primal human urge.

"People are somehow connected to the stars," he says. "Don't tell me that there's anyone in the world who doesn't want to know about space. Everyone does. It's part of our DNA. I don't think we can control this." In recent years, al Hariri has put this theory to the test, forming a kind of floating astronomy department in UAE schools, furnishing (and paying for) facilities and instructors at six locations in Dubai, Fujairah and Al Ain. The most notable example of this project can be found at the Wellington School in Dubai, which boasts one of the emirate's most modern, well-equipped observatories.

To fund such initiatives, the Dubai Astronomy Group operates various modest business interests, chief of which are its public and corporate stargazing trips. The group also receives the odd private donation, such as the new telescope from Thuraya. Mostly, though, it relies on the enthusiasm (and resources) of its 14 core members, a few of whom have been with the group since the beginning. "This is a team effort," al Hariri says, but there's little doubt as to who is the enthusiast-in-chief.

A Yemeni national who was born and raised in Dubai, al Hariri, 43, was gazing at the stars before he could count his toes. His interest in space didn't really gel, though, until he was 10, when his brother brought home a 1960s-era textbook on the subject. "It had these pictures of the solar system that were hand-painted," he recalls. "It was so amazing. I stared at those pictures for hours and hours. I'd imagine myself floating in space. I never got bored."

After this, al Hariri consumed every scrap of space-related trivia he could find. The real defining moment came when he encountered an article about the Nasa Voyager missions of the late 1970s, which dispatched probes to study Jupiter and Saturn. Reading about these expeditions, it was as if his future had suddenly unfurled before him. "It sounded like a dream," he says, "spaceships going to new worlds!" So he wrote the agency a letter - addressed simply to "Nasa, Washington, DC" - asking about Voyager and how he might get involved.

Every morning for months, al Hariri would scan the family mail, looking for the distinctive Nasa logo, and every morning he was disappointed. "After a while, I lost hope," he says. "Then one day, I got a big parcel from Nasa stating my name." The parcel was filled with books and pamphlets, all of them containing space-related facts, figures and pictures. "Hooray!" al Hariri hoots, smiling at the memory. "That was my day."

As he entered his teenage years, al Hariri had a plan in place. "I had a clear vision of what I wanted to do with my life," he says. "I wanted to be a space engineer, I wanted to design missions. My dream was to go to work at Nasa." By the time he'd reached college age, his father's trading business was faltering, and al Hariri was presented with a choice: "I could go to the States to study engineering, or I could stay at home and help him." He chose the latter. "The time was very hard for my father," he says. "I had to stay."

In his late teens, al Hariri went to work for Etisalat, where he received training to become a telecom engineer. Later, he joined the Dubai Ruler's Court as an IT manager. These jobs interested him, but didn't excite him. The only thing that did, he says, was studying astronomy, immersing himself in the books that had enchanted him as a boy. In 1988, along with a handful of friends, he launched the Dubai Astronomy Group, which quickly became a full-time job.

Al Hariri readily admits that there was something a little geeky about all this. "I was very much a lonely guy," he says of his youth. "I was not a social person. I was happy with my books: reading, reading, reading." His passion for astronomy, though, proved to be more powerful than his natural shyness, and he soon became a regular on Dubai's fledgling lecture circuit. "I suppose I became a little bit famous," he says. "Here's this guy who's going around talking about space. There was nothing like this in the UAE at the time."

Today, the Dubai Astronomy Group is far from being the only club of its kind in the Emirates. There are the Amateur Astronomy League, the ADCO Astronomy Club, the Deep Space Club, the Emirates Astronomical Society - the list goes on. But al Hariri's ambition remains undiminished. "Our objective is to become the world's number-one amateur astronomy group," he says. "In 2015, we aim to have something like a million members." When reminded that this represents quite a leap from the 1,700 members he has today, al Hariri shrugs and says: "We're growing very fast."

Even if the Dubai Astronomy Group does achieve global dominance, it'll still be a far cry from designing missions to Mars, an ambition al Hariri once harboured. He insists, though, that he doesn't dwell on this. In fact, he says, things might have worked out for the best. Along with the hundreds of kids he works with in local schools, he has six children of his own, ranging in age from five to 14. "I didn't go to Nasa, but what I am doing is teaching people," he says. "This is how I have made my mark."

A moment later, a couple of young boys bustle into the office and zero in on a MacBook sitting on al Hariri's desk. They jostle each other as they try to get a closer look at the object, and al Hariri tells them, rather brusquely, to stop doing that and sit down. "We are humans, we are very annoying beings," he says, smiling as the boys scuff the floor with their feet. "But we are also beautiful. We can do good things. We can make life flourish."

Then, having talked about astronomy for more than an hour, barely pausing for breath, al Hariri suddenly falls silent. He sits at his desk for a while, fiddling with a model of a Mars explorer vehicle, opening and closing its solar panels, twisting its little satellite dish, pulling at the robotic arm that, on the real thing, is used to gather samples. "I bought this in the 1990s," he says finally, putting the toy aside. "It was supposed to be a gift for my son, but I play with it more than he does."

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