Photo: UAE astronaut Hazza al-Mansouri
When US astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the moon on July 21, 1969, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) did not even exist. Large oilfields had only just been found in the region.
Yet, within a few decades, the Emirates grew rich and its cities – like Dubai and Abu Dhabi with their glittering skyscrapers – stretched up into the sky.
And now it will go even further. On September 25, the UAE is sending its own astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS) for the first time.
Hassa Al Mansouri already tweets as @astro_hazza about his preparations in Russia, posing in his spacesuit. He has just over 5,000 followers so far.
The UAE has been proudly announcing for months that Al Mansouri will be the first Arab astronaut to lead a video tour of the ISS and explain experiments in Arabic. The new “Race to Space” is also about superlatives. Even if the first Arab actually flew into space with the US back in 1985.
Nevertheless: “Such a relatively young programme as that of the Emirates – it’s not a PR gag, there’s a whole industry behind it,” says Jan Woerner, Director General of the European Space Agency ESA.
It was only two years ago that the UAE officially launched its astronaut programme. With the help of international partners, however, it has quickly caught up.
The ESA has supported the Emirates in its preparation for the flight to the ISS, for example when it comes to selecting and conducting the scientific experiments on board. Most of the training has taken place in Russia, and a Soyuz rocket will take Al Mansouri into space, where he will stay for eight days.
“It used to be you or me, Russia against the USA,” says Woerner. “Today it is a healthy competition and there is a lot of cooperation. That’s the wonderful thing: space belongs to everyone.”
However, the UAE’s astronaut programme is only one part of a broader “space strategy”, as the UAE Space Agency itself describes it. It is part of a strategy to become less dependent on oil and to make the transition to a “knowledge-based and innovation-driven economy”.
With KhalifaSat, the UAE launched its third Earth observation satellite into space last year. Next year, the first satellite will be launched to Mars, where it will comprehensively study the thin atmosphere and the seasons.
According to a magazine of the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), the Mars mission is intended to trigger a “scientific and technical renaissance in the UAE and the Arab world”.
The UAE already looking further ahead. It wants to build the first habitable settlement on the Red Planet within the next 100 years.
More and more nations and private providers are getting involved in space. This year, India and Israel have already carried out lunar missions, although they at least partially failed. The US also wants to go back to the moon.
What sounds like science fiction is a huge economic sector, says Woerner of the ESA.
“Space travel is a driver of innovation, but space travel must be understood as a complete infrastructure, that’s more than just curiosity,” he says. “Space travel has never been as active as it is today.”