By transforming desert sands into glistening cities, the leaders of the UAE transformed an entire society and drove the Emirates to heights unimaginable even a decade ago. Now the country is taking its first steps towards its next goal: building a city on the red sands of Mars by 2117.
As demonstrated by last year’s flight of the first member of their planned astronaut corps to the International Space Station and the scheduled launch of the Hope Mars Mission in July, the UAE government is serious, and is already investing real money and effort in the plan.
If the Emirates Mars Mission continues as planned, it will support the nation’s educational, technical and strategic ambitions for the next hundred years and more. It could also lead to a major shift in the UAE's ability to feed itself over the very long term, and to foster levels of self-sufficiency for its people that will transcend the end of the fossil-fuel era.
What makes this plan unique among those of other governments is that it doesn’t speak of tiny symbolic steps to explore Mars, but rather declares from the outset a national intention to go there and build a city.
Historically, space exploration has been focused on science, national prestige and strategic power. No other government – not even that of the US – has declared and funded a long-term programme to open the space frontier to its people to live and develop industries and build communities.
Although US President Ronald Reagan's Space Settlement Act of 1988 made the human settlement of space a core tenet of the US human spaceflight programme, Nasa got it cancelled a few years later.
In 2015 more than 100 high-level attendees at the New World's Institute's Pioneering Space National Summit, including the head of the current White House Space Council, endorsed human settlement as a primary goal of the spaceflight programme. Unfortunately, this visionary policy has yet to be adopted.
So the nation that some might think would naturally lead this type of effort has not done so. Even Nasa’s Artemis lunar project is not designed to establish civilian and private communities on the Moon except as an afterthought, even as some wealthy American private citizens are building their own settlement programmes.
Thus, by stepping into the leadership vacuum this failure created, the UAE will become known as the first nation to announce its goal to open the Solar System as a home for humanity.
Rather than just exploring Mars, deciding to build a city there is an important distinction, as it means learning how to provide all the essential needs of human life, and goes far beyond the basic engineering needed to fly robots and probes or to send astronauts on camping trips.
As a visitor to a place, you can bring everything you need for your trip with you. But if you are going there to live, you need to be able to survive on what you find at your destination. Thus the end goal determines everything you do along the way.
With human space settlement as that goal, one can work backwards to the present and make decisions accordingly. Once you leave the earth, there are three components that are essential. The first is transportation: the ability to get there and back cheaply, safely, reliably, and regularly. Second is resources: the ability to use what you find there to survive and thrive. The third is regulations: securing the right (and, hopefully, the encouragement) to do so from governing bodies.
Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other business magnates are focused on transportation. Within a year or two, we will see the first flights of 100 per cent reusable rocket ships, meaning that by the time the UAE is ready to establish a foothold on Mars, the ships will be there to buy or rent.
Regarding regulations, the UAE is already a great supporter of space-resource policies, along with the US and Luxembourg. The UAE is working closely with both, and I hope they will expand this work so that citizens of the Emirates and any other nation wanting to start a new life on the frontier will be able to do so.
For example, Nasa administrator Jim Bridenstine repeatedly mentions the UAE as one of the nations he sees as an obvious participant in the recently announced Artemis Accords, a precedent-setting document intended to establish norms of behaviour on the Moon.
Next is the use of space resources – turning energy and materials into the stuff of life and profit centres to fund the space economy. In other words, how will we both build cities on the deserts of Mars and provide them with the air, water and food?
Answering this question is what makes the UAE Mars plan so important. It is the same challenge faced by every desert or resource-challenged nation, and if answered will transform life in the UAE. After all, if we learn how to extract water from the red sands of Mars and turn it green with life, why can’t we do it in the deserts here?
What is needed to accomplish this goal calls forth everything an advanced society is about: clean energy, urban and home design, sanitation, transportation and a host of other areas.
Needless to say, the Hope mission to Mars will be an inspiration to the people of the UAE – especially the children. It is also a great first step of a three-part strategy for the Emirates to build towards the goal of eventually sending humans to Mars.
First, Hope and other missions of exploration will develop the UAE’s deep space capabilties. Working with the US and others on programmes such as the Artemis Moon missions will expand on this.
Second, the government should support private firms who can bring important expertise to the plan, while growing a UAE space technology industry.
Finally, it is important to begin early to understand and experience the challenges of living on Mars and prepare the generations ahead.
This brings me to Dubai's Mars Science City. If developed with real substance, it will become a global centre for the innovation needed to live both on Mars and places here on earth so far seen as inhospitable. In fact, long before the first habitats are erected under the Martian dunes, the dunes of the Arabian Peninsula and the Sahara may be home to new UAE-designed domed and self-sufficient cities and communities.
Along with the physical benefits of being able to expand life out into the desert, the Mars initiative can nurture environmental and community awareness and shared purpose – a sense of national and human destiny for its children. From architecture to agriculture, and medicine to management, this challenge will excite and focus generations of the UAE’s children in ways no other national educational agenda can touch.
In his speech making the announcement, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, shifted the future course of the country’s history. As mentioned in a presentation at the NewSpace Conference in 2019 by Talal Al Kaissi, an advisor at the UAE Space Agency, this was a Kennedy moment for the Emirates and one that if it stays on track will lead the nation to a giant role in the future of humanity.
Rick N Tumlinson is the founder of SpaceFund, Space Frontier Foundation, New Worlds Institute and EarthLight Foundation