Capitalising on the regional buzz around space, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday put economic unease at home aside to unveil an ambitious 10-year rocket programme with plans to send a mission to the Moon and astronauts into space.
The announcement came as the UAE became the fifth country and the first in the region to send a mission to Mars.
Mr Erdogan, who regularly unveils grand nationalist projects despite a sputtering economy, announced the programme in a televised event laced with special effects.
It is seen as part of his vision for placing Turkey in an expanded regional and global role having announced electric car programmes, mega-bridge projects and ambitious infrastructure developments.
He said Turkey planned to establish “a first contact with the Moon” in 2023, when the country marks the centennial of the founding of the Turkish republic.
The first stage of the mission would be “through international co-operation”, while the second stage would use Turkish rockets, Mr Erdogan said.
“Our primary and most important goal for our national space programme is the contact of the republic, in its 100th year, with the Moon,” the Turkish leader said. “God willing, we are going to the Moon.”
Mr Erdogan also declared Turkey’s aim to send Turkish citizens into space with international co-operation, to work with other countries on building a spaceport and to create a “global brand” in satellite technology.
“I hope that this road map, which will carry Turkey to the top league in the global space race, will come to life successfully,” he said.
Turkey established the Turkish Space Agency, or TUA, in 2018, with the aim of joining the handful of other countries with space programmes.
Critics questioned the government’s decision to spend vast sums of money on that goal at a time when the country’s economy is suffering. But supporters say a space programme will provide jobs for researchers and is likely to reduce the brain drain of emigrating scientists.
Mr Erdogan did not provide details about how Turkey plans to achieve its goals. Last month, he and SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk spoke by telephone and discussed co-operation on space technologies with Turkish companies.
Meanwhile, a metal monolith that mysteriously appeared and disappeared in a field in southeast Turkey turned out to be a publicity gimmick before the event.
The three-metre tall metal slab with the inscription “Look at the sky, you will see the Moon” written in an ancient Turkic script was found on Friday by a farmer in Sanliurfa province.
The monolith was near the Unesco World Heritage site of Gobekli Tepe, which is home to megalithic structures dating from the 10th century BC, thousands of years before Stonehenge.
The structure was reported gone on Tuesday morning, adding to the mystery.
An image of the monolith was later projected on the screen as Mr Erdogan said: “I now present to you Turkey’s 10-year vision, strategy and aims and I say, ‘Look at the sky, you will see the Moon'.”