UAE students learn history of human space flight from former US astronaut

The US embassy in Abu Dhabi is organising visits by American space experts and astronauts as part of efforts to grow ties between the UAE and US in the space industry.

Marsha Ivins, a former American astronaut, speaks at the 2nd Annual Emirates Mars Mission workshop in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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ABU DHABI // A former American astronaut who has flown in five space shuttle missions has visited students across the UAE.

Marsha Ivins’ visit is one of many events organised by the US embassy in Abu Dhabi this month to demonstrate American ideas, technology and innovation.

“In the UAE, you have a very young and aggressive space programme that is ultimately going to send a probe to Mars, which is exciting,” Ms Ivins said. “People in the UAE are interested in space and they will now have a real in-country project to look at that shows that you’ve gone to space and what you can do.”

She visited five universities and a science club in Ras Al Khaimah to give lectures about the history of human space flight and how the US started its programme.

“I showed them how we took people to space and flew them to the Moon,” Ms Ivins said. “From building a space station, operating on it and life in space without gravity, I also showed them pictures of the UAE from space and the local area of each place I went to.”

She said students had shown a lot of interest in the industry. “It’s the next frontier and the horizon we haven’t been over yet. If people are interested in expanding, exploring and learning things they don’t know then space is the ultimate place to do that.”

Barbara Leaf, the US ambassador to the UAE, said: “This year’s themes of innovation, sustainability and wellness fit nicely into where the UAE has priorities.

“Innovation has a means of unleashing the engines of economic diversification, while with sustainability, specifically with the UAE, we are looking for sustainable solutions that help them with the energy diversification piece.”

With 1,200 American companies and 60,000 people in the UAE, Ms Leaf is hoping to take that relationship one step further through the second Discover America programme.

“Doing this is a way for us to elevate our message and rise above the noise,” she said. “It’s a way for us to put out a message that we have really cutting-edge ideas.”

Education will also be a focus with 36 American universities taking part in the Education USA fair.

“I would love nothing better than to substantially increase the number of Emiratis studying in the US,” Ms Leaf said. “There are currently 2,900 but I’d love to double that and I think we could.”

Another two state delegations from Washington and Colorado will visit this month. Discussions are regularly held with the UAE Government on security issues, including cyber safety.

Analysts said UAE-US ties were at an ultimate high.

“Ties will definitely grow in importance as the UAE tries to diversify its economy and prepare for the post-oil era,” said Ahmed Al Attar, assistant director of defence and security at Abu Dhabi think tank the Delma Institute.

“As a technological powerhouse and a major consumer, the US offers large opportunities for bilateral trade as part of that preparation.”

Dr Albadr Al Shateri, politics professor at the National Defence College, said the initiative came amid doubts about the US commitment to the Arabian Gulf.

“The UAE Vision 2021 includes almost every area of cooperation that the UAE and US are undertaking,” Dr Al Shateri said.

“The strategic vision stresses a country that will be among the best, with a strong union, a knowledge-based society that values innovation with a diversified and resilient economy, as well as a high standard of living for its people.

“To that end, the new cooperation in the fields of education, space, tourism, health care and culture works hand in glove with the country’s strategic vision.”