Emirati astronaut's return is just the start of the UAE's space journey

The country is already gathering data about Mars and working with international partners on a Moon mission

UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi greets his father Saif and three of his children during a homecoming reception at the new terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Mohamed Al Hammadi / UAE Presidential Court
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Humanity’s exploration of space can occasionally seem, for most of those on the ground, a somewhat remote and distant endeavour. It is a highly specialised endeavour pursued by a relatively small group of scientists, technicians and astronauts. Fewer than 700 people have gone into space – ever. This makes the recent images of Emirati spacefarer Sultan Al Neyadi embracing his family upon returning to the UAE after six months in space even more heart-warming; when boiled down to its essence, space exploration is essentially about people and their future both on this planet and beyond it.

It is a future that is just starting to take shape. Dr Al Neyadi’s mission was on board the International Space Station, a fine example of international scientific co-operation, but space agencies are already talking about retiring the ISS by the end of the decade, owing to its rising costs and ageing infrastructure. The focus is shifting instead to Mars and the Moon.

Dr Al Neyadi has said that he hopes his next voyage into space will include a visit to a planned space station that will orbit the Moon. Aged just 42, there is no reason to think that his ambition is confined to the realms of science fiction or wishful thinking. The Nasa-led Artemis project – which aims to put humans on the Moon in long-term missions – is already in the works. The Artemis Accords, an international agreement led by the US that lays down guidelines for responsible space exploration, enjoys the support of 21 nations including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

The race to put the first human on the Moon was largely a two-horse contest, partly a reflection of the political and ideological rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union at the time. Exploring space in the 21st century has become a more diverse enterprise in which countries such as the UAE, India and China are joined by private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. There is also a relatively higher level of international co-operation: the two latest members of the UAE’s astronaut corps – Nora Al Matrooshi and her colleague Mohammed Al Mulla – have been training at Nasa's Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, since January last year. Even setbacks, such as the failure of a Japanese lander to deliver the UAE’s Rashid lunar rover to the Moon’s surface in April, are an opportunity to take further steps; Emirati engineers at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre have already said they are working at “full speed” to develop the country’s second mission to the Moon.

Earth’s near neighbour, Mars, is also entering the realm of what can conceivably be achieved by humans co-operating in space. Among the groundwork being laid for a potential crewed mission to the Red Planet is the scientific information being collected by the UAE’s Hope probe, an orbiter that took up its position around the planet in February 2021 and has been beaming back crucial data ever since.

Dr Al Neyadi’s return is the latest chapter in a remarkable Emirati story: in two generations, the country has gone from a traditional way of life to becoming a spacefaring nation. It is a story that is also just beginning.

Published: September 20, 2023, 3:00 AM