The UAE's mission to build a city on Mars is an ideas race first

Our fascination with the world around us, and the exploration of other worlds, is universal and enduring

The French space agency has opened an office in Abu Dhabi. UAE Space Agency
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In 1917, Albert Einstein published his first paper on cosmology, the vacuum cleaner had just been invented and the television, toaster, hairdryer and ballpoint pen were still light years away. It would have been impossible for the average person 100 years ago to envisage man would land on the Moon, let alone that humans might one day live on Mars.

Yet the UAE is planning to do just that by building the first city on the Red Planet within a century as part of its 2117 Mars project. This week Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the UAE Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, was one of the first people to get a glimpse of what life in a Martian city might look like. A short film, viewed with a virtual reality headset, took him on a simulated tour of a city built under a huge dome, complete with flying vehicles, trees and vegetation. It is thought work on the planet more than 50 million kilometres away could start in just 30 years. In three years, the unmanned Emirates Mars Mission, a joint venture by the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and the UAE Space Agency, will go into orbit to carry out scientific observations in preparation.


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All this is part of a plan to put the UAE at the forefront of planetary exploration and, eventually, to launch homegrown astronauts into space. Astronautical training could start in the UAE as early as next year. Why? Because our fascination with the world around us, and the exploration of other worlds, is universal and enduring. Human beings have always been driven to find new discoveries and to test the limits of knowledge and expertise, as well as to pose fundamental questions about our purpose and place in the universe. That is the never-ending question civilisation has been asking itself from time immemorial.

The space race is an ideas race first and foremost and one befitting a nation which places such value in a knowledge economy. For the new age of space exploration isn't simply about sending astronauts into space; it is to build a credible foundation of expertise, research, technology and development, which in turn will lead to other offshoot projects and new boundaries and ideas being explored. It makes sense that the UAE, bold and larger-than-life in its vision and the realisation of its aspirations, should be part of that space race. Whether it will cross the finishing line first really is the final frontier.