This week, the UAE is set to make history. Launching a probe to capture the first ever complete picture of the atmosphere around the Red Planet, the Hope Probe to Mars will provide vital information for scientists around the world. And while the data set itself will be the first of its kind, that is just half of the story. The UAE is making history as the first Arab or Muslim-majority country to organise and oversee the launch of a probe into space. The team behind this mission is comprised of scientists, engineers and experts from around the world, 30 per cent of whom are Emirati. And importantly, 36 per cent of the team are women.
The lead up to the mission has provided a historic opportunity for young men and women to be at the helm of cutting-edge science. While the launch on July 15 will be from Tanegashima island in Japan, the control centre in Dubai will play an instrumental role. No Arab city has had that experience before. It will also be the first time that a countdown to a space launch is in Arabic. Millions of Arabs counting in their native tongue for a space launch will ignite imaginations for years to come. The tagline for the much-celebrated programme is "Arabs to Mars". While led and funded by the UAE, this mission is being celebrated as an Arab one. The UAE government seeks to spark a love for science and striving for achievement not only domestically but also regionally.
The idea for the Mars mission came into being in 2014, as UAE policymakers sought an initiative, both to mark the 50th jubilee of the country’s unification and to create a catalyst for scientific innovation. Coincidentally, the first spacecraft to have a soft landing on Mars was on December 2, 1971 – the day of the founding of the UAE. Getting young Arabs to be interested in science, or allowing Arab scientists and engineers to have their own space programme to work on is much needed. It is a worthy way to mark all that the UAE has come to symbolise in the past five decades. As Covid-19 challenges countries around the world, the Mars Probe is being launched on time and on budget.
The name of the Mars probe, Hope, is an apt one. Arabs need hope, and some are looking for an example of success to emulate. That is what the UAE has offered time and again. From being chosen as the top destination Arabs wish to live in, according to the Arab Youth Survey, to hosting next year's Expo, the UAE expands its boundaries to those who dream. To coincide with the Mars probe, the UAE has announced an initiative named "MarsShot", where people from around the world are being invited to think big and present their ideas for the possibility of making them a reality. Three of the best ideas will come to life. The winners are expected to be announced on July 29. The MarsShot is aimed at inspiring young people around the world to innovate and dream of solutions without limitations of access and resources that usually hold people back.
“Through this campaign, we dare people to dream. We dare them to make their goals in life so big and show them that what they have thought of as impossible, is possible,” said Kevin Hart, the Hollywood star who has teamed up with the UAE for the MarsShot. “We hope to create a positive momentum and share inspiring stories that reminds people of their wonderful ability to dream and make anything happen with determination and willpower”.
Some will read these lines and respond with cynicism, pointing out all the challenges that exist in the region. Despite the greatest determination, some developments in Arab countries, from Libya to Palestine, make it seem impossible to dream. The feeling of despair has gripped too many of the Arab world’s youth – some even to the point of complete hopelessness. To hear of a man taking his own life in Tunisia or Lebanon because of terrible economic hardships means sinking to the lowest level of despair. To hear of a generation of Syrian or Yemeni children losing out on education because of being displaced challenges most aspirations in the region. And yet, here is an Arab country saying dreams are encouraged –rather, needed. This beacon of hope could not come at a better time.
The Mars probe comes as part of a series of UAE space initiatives. In March 2019, at a meeting convened in Abu Dhabi, the first pan-Arab space organisation was formed. The aim was to create a nucleus leading pan-Arab co-operation on space, an entity to co-ordinate efforts. The first project for the organisation will be to launch an Arab satellite entitled 813.
The name is a nod to the year that marked the beginning of prosperity for the "House of Wisdom" in Baghdad, which became the hallmark for Arab and Islamic excellence in the sciences, and particularly astronomy. The reference to Iraq is symbolic of the potential Arabs can have, harking back to an era when Iraq was a centre of enlightenment. Today, too much of the news from Iraq is synonymous with lost opportunities and broken dreams, including last week's assassination of Husham Al Hashimi, an expert who died for his thoughts.
The journey of the Mars probe is seven months long, but it is part of a much longer journey of knowledge. This odyssey is a shot at space exploration and advancing science, but it is equally about improving our situation here on Earth.
Mina Al-Oraibi is editor-in-chief at The National