Former Nasa chief: UAE's space programme is 'helping humanity'

Charles Bolden, veteran of four space flights and a Vietnam fighter pilot, believes missions to the International Space Station and Mars and the KhalifaSat launch will put the Emirates on the the galactic map

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - October 23, 2018:  Interview with Nasa astronaut, Charles Bolden. Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018 at Fairmont, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Powered by automated translation

April 24, 1990. space shuttle Discovery blasts off from Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.

On board is the Hubble telescope, a project of vital significance that will broaden our understanding of space.

The pilot of the mission was Nasa astronaut Charles Bolden, on the second of his four space flights.

Nearly three decades on, Mr Bolden is still a man on a mission – with his latest trip being to the UAE, a country embarking on bold space adventures of its own.

Mr Bolden has come to the UAE as a space envoy. The initiative was organised by the US Embassy and during his brief stay, he will visit schools, talk to pupils and try to raise even more awareness about the importance of space travel as the UAE seeks to diversify from oil.

In a wide-ranging and exclusive interview with The National in Abu Dhabi, Mr Bolden shared his thoughts on the soaring ambition of the Emirates Mars Mission, why men are being left behind by women in the education stakes and how the Arab world needs to appreciate its historic achievements in science and mathematics.

Now 72, he speaks with an energy and enthusiasm that puts people half his age to shame.

Mr Bolden, also the first African-American Nasa chief and a decorated fighter pilot, turned first to the UAE’s efforts to place its Hope probe into orbit around the Red Planet by 2021.

He said if successful, the move will enhance the world’s understanding of the Martian atmosphere.

“You know how many nations have been successful in reaching Mars? Not very many,” he said. “It is a huge deal for us to have the Emirates Mars Mission reach Mars.”


Read more: 

UAE space programme: all you need to know

UAE space chiefs confident Russian rocket will carry the first Emirati astronaut to space despite launch failure

Emirati astronomer collaborates with NYUAD on black holes research


There are currently two orbiters around the planet. Nasa studies the upper atmosphere with one, while India looks at the lower with another.

“Hope will look at the middle atmosphere and will complete the picture,” he said. “We could not do that alone.”

The UAE space programme is advancing on several fronts. Along with the Mars mission, the UAE's first astronaut is scheduled to blast into orbit on a Russian Soyuz rocket next April, while KhalifaSat, the first Emirati-designed satellite, will be launched into space from Japan on Monday.

"This is their third satellite," Mr Bolden said. "How many nations of this size can say they've launched three satellites?"

He thinks so highly of the Emirati programme he agreed to serve as adviser to the director general of the UAE Agency.

“In terms of performance, it is among the best young space agencies in the world,” he said.

Human endeavour in space requires many characteristics. Chief among them is courage in the face of adversity – something Mr Bolden knows plenty about. He grew up in segregated South Carolina when the prospect of becoming a fighter pilot, let alone an astronaut, seemed remote. But he went on to fly 100 missions for the US Navy during the Vietnam War. Reflecting on that divisive conflict, Mr Bolden said he values his wartime experience, but feels people still have not learned the lessons of the past.

Charles Bolden meets Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed at a Ramadan Majlis in 2016. Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi
Charles Bolden meets Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed at a Ramadan Majlis in 2016. Mohamed Al Hammadi / Crown Prince Court – Abu Dhabi

“War is not a way to solve problems – war is a lousy way to solve problems. But as bad as it may have been, it demonstrated what can be done when a nation is focused on achieving great things,” he said.

“We went to the Moon when we were fighting each other in the streets.”

By 1981, Mr Bolden had made it through the arduous selection process to join the astronaut corps and went on to pilot or command four space flights on the now defunct shuttle programme. He can still recall picking out the lights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai from space.

“They are like Paris and you can see the structure of towns because where there is good fortune and money, it is very well lit,” he said. “Seeing the world from space changes your perspective on the planet. When you see how small and insignificant people are, if Martians came to Earth they might turn around.”

When Mr Bolden was Nasa chief, one of his aims was to improve relations with the Muslim world and highlight the pioneering role played by Arabs in mathematics, science and engineering.

“Appreciation has to start here,” he said.

But he sounds a note of caution for young men, who he warns are being left behind by ambitious women.

“They are hungry.” he said. “They have had to fight to get where they are today. I hope one of the things my visit will do, in addition to keep pushing women to succeed, is to help young boys understand they need to get educated.”

Mr Bolden's final space flight was in 1994, when he commanded space shuttle Discovery. This carried the first Russian cosmonaut to fly on a space shuttle. International and commercial collaboration, which the UAE has embraced, is what he predicts will separate successful missions from failures.

“Emiratis should feel proud,” he said. “You are helping humanity to become more knowledgeable,” he said.