The UAE's space station deal should come as no surprise

An agreement with Nasa to build the Lunar Gateway's airlock is important but the Emirates' track record in space is already well established

The Museum of the Moon at OliOli Children's Museum in Dubai. The UAE's involvement in Nasa's Lunar Gateway project means an Emirati astronaut could be headed for our nearest neighbour in the future. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

“A deep space home, and so much more,” is how Nasa has characterised its plan for humanity’s first space station around the Moon, Lunar Gateway – a platform the US agency plans to begin assembling in orbit around our nearest celestial neighbour by the end of the decade. The UAE’s Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre will develop and build the station’s airlock, a vital component that will offer a safe way in and out for its residents.

The UAE space agency’s involvement is unsurprising, given the country’s growing track record of technical achievements in space science. In recent years, these milestones have included sending two citizens into orbit, training more for future missions, successfully building and sending the Hope probe to Mars and developing the Rashid rover lunar lander. Sunday’s announcement confirms the country’s place as a consistent and valued player in the international space sector. It also ensures that the Emirates can be counted among the relatively small group of nations that are engaged in significant long-term space projects.

It is an exciting step forward for a project that could see humanity return to the Moon for the first time since 1972. Gateway is a crucial part of Nasa’s Artemis programme, which aims to build a sustainable human presence there. It is envisioned that astronauts will use Gateway for Artemis missions, before descending to the lunar surface using landing modules currently being developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin.

Such co-operation between national space agencies and the private sector, already seen in the multinational effort to establish and enhance the International Space Station, will be reflected in the UAE’s development of the Gateway airlock, a task that will be carried out by MBRSC in partnership with international companies. This is a major opportunity to continue developing local scientific, technical and manufacturing talent and is an important part of the UAE’s continuing diversification away from an energy-based economy.

The airlock agreement, although important in its own right, is also part of the region’s emerging space sector, which has come a long way since the launch of the first Arab satellite, Arabsat-1A, in 1985. A 2022 report from the SpaceTech Analytics think tank noted that the space sector in the Gulf “has already resulted in the emergence of companies and initiatives that have the potential to bring billion-dollar investment into the region”. In addition, a new report from the Euroconsult agency this month claims that the Middle East's space economy “which has tripled over the past decade to an estimated value of $25 billion in 2023” could grow to $75 billion by 2032.

This trend seems certain to continue. A paper published in April last year by the Middle East Institute noted that as part of Gulf nations’ “clear priorities to diversify their economies across forward-looking technologies, the space business strongly aligns with the objectives of the GCC member states”.

In the meantime, the work of preparing more Emiratis to go into space continues. The UAE currently has four citizens in its astronaut corps, any of whom – as well as future members – could be chosen for Moon missions. Nora Al Matrooshi, the first Emirati woman to be selected as an astronaut, and Mohammed Al Mulla are expected to graduate from a Nasa training programme this month and will become eligible for space missions. It is entirely possible that one day, they could enter the door of a lunar space station that was, like them, made in the UAE.

Published: January 09, 2024, 3:00 AM