Space exploration will send our economy into orbit

Missions are a catalyst for innovations that, in addition to making discoveries in space, improve lives on Earth.

Alia Al Mansoori watches her experiment be launched into space in the Space X Falcon 9 rocket in August last year. Scott A Miller / The National
Powered by automated translation

At precisely 12.31pm on Monday, a Falcon9 rocket lifted off from Nasa's Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. The rocket shot a 2,900 kg Dragon cargo capsule into space. When astronauts aboard the International Space Station retrieve the capsule today, they will find, among its contents, an experiment by Emirati teenager Alia Al Mansoori that will study DNA to identity how proteins in living organisms are synthesised, modified and regulated in space. The results of the experiment may yield clues that could aid in the prevention of unwanted cell death in astronauts on long-haul missions into deep space, including future flights to Mars. Ms Al Mansoori's experiment won the Genes in Space competition, which is sponsored by The National, the UAE Space Agency and Boeing.  She is the first winner from outside the United States.

The inclusion of Ms Al Mansoori's experiment in the Nasa mission is a measure of the strides the UAE has made since Sheikh Zayed quizzed visiting American astronauts in the 1970s about space exploration. In 2014, the UAE launched its own Space Agency, the first in the Arab world. In 2020, the agency will launch space probe that will reach Mars the following year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the UAE's founding. In 2015, the UAE established the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre. Two years later, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, unveiled the Mars 2117 Project: a plan to build the first human settlement on Mars within a century. "Nothing is impossible ... we can compete with the greatest of nations in the race for knowledge," he said when he announced the project earlier this year.

The UAE's space programme drew sceptical responses from some quarters in the beginning. To others, space exploration has always seemed like a waste of resources. This is a profoundly misplaced view. Ms Al Mansoori is a fine example of how space research can galvanise young minds. It is a catalyst for technological innovations; in addition to making hugely important discoveries in space, it gives rise to unexpected inventions on earth that benefit us all. John F Kennedy understood this; as, in our own day, does Sheikh Mohammed.

The computer microchip, the CAT scanner (which can detect cancer), the satellite television and the smoke detector – these are all among the dozens of technologies we now take for granted but which would not be available to us were it not for space research. As Dr Ahmad Belhoul, the UAE's Minister of State for Higher Education and the Chairman of the UAE Space Agency, wrote in these pages last month, "space exploration is a necessity not only because of its tangible benefits to our everyday lives, but because of its potential to inspire and uplift mankind in ways we can only imagine". It will, in short, drive the knowledge economy and ensure that our post-oil economy receives a necessary boost of rocket fuel.