UAE's new space centre chief sets out vision for more astronaut missions

Salem Al Marri is expanding operations of the centre, aiming for more human space flight and interplanetary missions in the next five years

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The man charged with propelling the UAE's space centre into a golden era of prosperity has set out an ambitious five-year vision for further human space flights, more satellite development and interplanetary missions.

Salam Al Marri, who was appointed director general of Dubai's Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in December, told The National of the importance of collaborating with other nations in this world to explore other worlds.

He spoke of his plans for all four members of the nation's astronaut corps to be given the opportunity to travel into space.

“Today, I think the country is definitely focused on building exploration missions, human space flight, Earth-observation and remote-sensing satellites,” he said.

We want to have an ecosystem of suppliers, supply chain, local supply chain manufacturers and companies that we can work with
Salem Al Marri

“We have four astronauts and our objective is definitely to fly all of these astronauts and make sure they have meaningful and long-duration missions.”

Engineers have built the Arab world’s first Moon mission that the space centre hopes to launch this year.

It is part of a long-term Moon exploration programme Mr Al Marri wants to develop, which would involve multiple rovers and orbiters.

Need for local space expertise

To help the private space sector grow, Mr Al Marri wants to secure more local partners for space projects, instead of foreign ones, as in some of the previous missions when the UAE’s space sector was not as developed.

“We want to have an ecosystem of suppliers, supply chain, local supply chain manufacturers and companies that we can work with, to subcontract elements of our projects with, and then the rest we do in-house, or at least the integration,” he said.

However, international partnerships remain crucial for the space centre to help carry out some of the more complex missions which lie ahead.

The space centre worked with three US universities to build a Mars spacecraft from scratch — the pioneering Hope probe — which has been successfully transmitting data since February 9, 2021.

A partnership with Nasa is helping the UAE’s four astronauts train for future, long-duration, missions.

“Without the element of international cooperation, whether you're a small or big agency, you're really not going to survive very long,” said Mr Al Marri.

“We’re always open to work with everyone. If we look at launches, we’ve launched with Russia, Japan, the Europeans and we’ve launched with SpaceX.”

From fledgling satellite programme to Mars mission

When Mr Al Marri was growing up in the Emirates in the 1980s there was no national space programme to join, yet alone help to lead.

He worked in telecoms after graduating from university in 2003, around the same time as the idea for a space centre began to take off.

Two years later, 23-year-old Mr Al Marri became one of only four other engineers who were hand-picked by the government to work on the UAE’s first satellite, DubaiSat-1.

It was the start of a momentous journey for Mr Al Marri, with some distance still to travel.

“Back then, there wasn’t a Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre — it was more of just ‘let’s build satellites',” said Mr Al Marri, who graduated from the Dubai Men’s College with a bachelor's degree in business information technology.

“The idea was to develop a space programme and build it up from there.”

The satellite programme helped set up the Emirates Institution for Advanced Sciences and Technology in 2005, which would eventually become the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre nine years later, the organisation behind the UAE’s most successful space missions.

These include the UAE Astronaut Programme, the Hope Mars Mission, domestically built satellites and a coming Dh500 million Mars Science City.

Today, aged 39, and after 17 years of helping the space centre grow, Mr Al Marri is proud to be given the chance to lead it to even greater heights.

Updated: March 02, 2022, 4:51 AM