The UAE's journey to space

The UAE's Founding Father Sheikh Zayed met with three American astronauts in Abu Dhabi in 1976

UAE Founding Father Sheikh Zayed meets with three American astronauts in February 1976.
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As with so many, for the UAE, the dreams of space began when young.

In a display case of the Al Ain Museum is a fragment of rock, a gift from the US president, Richard Nixon “as a symbol of the unity of human endeavour”.

It is a tiny piece of Moon rock, gathered when the country was not yet a year old, and carried back to Earth by the crew of Apollo 17 in September 1972.

That was the final Apollo Mission, and the astronauts Eugene Cerman and Ronald Evans were the last men to set foot on the Moon.

For the UAE this was the symbolic start of the country's relationship with space, one that will become reality when, in three years' time, the spacecraft Al Amal or Hope arrives to orbit the planet Mars. The arrival is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the UAE.

Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, center, announces a United Arab Emirates' Mars mission named "Hope" ��� or "al-Amal" in Arabic ��� which is scheduled be launched in 2020, during a ceremony in Dubai, UAE, Wednesday, May 6, 2015. It would be the Arab world's first space probe to Mars and will take seven to nine months to reach the red planet, arriving in 2021. Emirati scientists hope the unmanned probe will provide a deeper understanding of the Martian atmosphere, and expect it to remain in orbit until at least 2023. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, announces the UAE Mars mission named "Hope" — or "al-Amal" in Arabic - in June 2015. Kamran Jebreili / AP Photo

Hope is due to blast off from Earth in 2020, taking advantage of a narrow launch window that aligns Earth and Mars when their orbits are closest, and will take a year to arrive.

The journey behind the country’s first interplanetary scientific mission, though, has been five decades in the making.

In the 1970s, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the Founding Father of the UAE, held at least three meetings on space, including a memorable gathering in Abu Dhabi in February 1976, with three American astronauts who had taken part in the historic link up in orbit with a Soviet Soyuz craft a year previously.

The meeting saw Sheikh Zayed presented with a model of the US Space Shuttle, then still five years away from its first flight, and which was brokered by an American-Egyptian Nasa scientist, Farouk El-Baz.

Nearly 40 years later, Dr El-Baz was congratulating the country’s current Rulers by video link in May 2015, at the official launch of the UAE Space Agency.

For the agency’s Director General, Mohammed Al Ahbabi, the picture of Sheikh Zayed and the three American astronauts is a powerful tool.


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“The UAE space programme has its roots in the time of Sheikh Zayed,” he says. "We use this image to reflect that our space programme is not something that has just happened like this. There have been preparations.”

The agency has just marked its third anniversary. For Dr Al Ahbabi, the support and commitment of the country’s leaders has been crucial in engaging with young people.

Space, he believes, has much bigger role to play than just an industrial sector. “We use space as a tool to inspire. When we bring astronauts to students we see their big eyes and we say, ‘well if you want to be an astronaut you have to do well in maths and science’.

“It’s another tool. It doesn’t matter where they go later – maybe they will go to oil and gas, or to aviation or the nuclear sector or other high tech sectors.

The agency was formed following the success of YahSat, the Mubadala-owned company whose satellites serve both the military, the Government and the private sector. The company plans to launch Al Yah 3, a communications satellite, this year, offering broadband services across almost all of Brazil and 60 per cent of Africa.

At the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, a team of UAE scientists is working on KhalifaSat, an Earth observatory satellite with an expected launch date next year.

The satellite will provide high-resolution images that can be used for everything from urban planning to environmental changes and aiding rescuers in natural disasters.

Two other satellites have been launched by the MBR Space Centre. The first was built by Korean scientists in Korea with the participation of Emirati technicians.

For DubaiSat-2, the Koreans and Emiratis worked together to design and build the satellite in Dubai. KhalifaSat, the most technologically advanced of the three, is wholly designed and built by Emiratis.

January 6, 2015- Provided photo of the the completed engineering model for KhalifaSat
Courtesy The Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre *** Local Caption ***  sat1.jpg
The completed engineering model for KhalifaSat. Courtesy Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre

This is an ideal model, says Dr Ahbabi, of how the UAE can acquire skills and technologies.

Developing a skilled and diversified workforce is a primary role of the agency, as is inspiring young people through space, with projects like the Genes in Space competition, supported by The National. The winner of the contest, 15-year-old Alia Al Mansoori, will have her experiment sent to the international Space Station for testing in orbit.

Alia Al Mansoori won the Genes in Space competition and will have her experiment sent to the International Space Station for testing in orbit. Courtesy MiniPCR
Alia Al Mansoori won the Genes in Space competition and will have her experiment sent to the International Space Station for testing in orbit. Courtesy MiniPCR

“We need to use space as a bridge to the future,” he says. “We need space to contribute to our soft power and we need space to inspire young people. This is the big mandate given to us by leadership.”

As part of its work, the UAE Space Agency has set up six space research centres at universities and institutes across the UAE, including Masdar, which now offers a qualification in space systems and technology.

The Space Centre also has plans for students to build around 10 “cubestats”, miniature space satellites measuring a few centimetres across that can be used for scientific research.

Above all, what has really seized the imagination of the country is the Emirates Mars Mission, a joint project with UAE and MBR space centres.

Emirati designed and built, the Hope spacecraft will orbit Mars and scan the surface and atmosphere with a variety of instruments. But its significance is as much symbolic as scientific. This is the first interplanetary mission by an Islamic country.

Dr Ahbabi says missions like this can remind the world of the UAE’s achievements, but that space can also lift expectations across the Arab World during what is a testing time for many of its youth.

“It sends a message to the youth of the region. It is possible. Don’t give up. Don’t lose hope. We will help you. Don’t do bad thing. Do good things.”

Inside the country, space: “Sends a message to our people that if you want to go there you have to help me to get there. You have to be prepared, you have to sacrifice you have to be apart from your family for months. You have study hard. You have to work day and night.”

He recalls an older man who came to meet him with his young son. “ He said  ‘I want my son to be the first one to go to Mars’. We had to explain to him that no-one is going there now. That this (Hope) is a space craft, a robot.

“And and he said ‘Even if you don’t send someone now my son has to be the first one there’ . So we said bring him and we will educate him .

“When he finishes high school we will provide him with the best education and then he will be ready to go to the Moon or the stars- or even go to the oil sector.”

The point is that investing in space can help the entire UAE economy. Of the 500 or so space technicians in the UAE, half are Emirati. Of these one in three is female. The percentage of women in Nasa is 13 per cent.

Dr Ahbabi would like to see the first Emirati astronaut ”even if age is a factor for me”. He believes the cost would be far outweighed by the positive for the country, on national pride. "You see the impact on other countries for their astronauts."

And then there is Mars 2117. The project, unveiled in February, proposes the construction of a UAE city on Mars in a century from now.

For many, the idea and the timescale is difficult to conceive. “It’s the longest space project on earth,” says the director general of the UAE Space Agency.  “But it’s the journey. It’s not the destination.”