The UAE in Space: To Infinity, and Beyond
A manned mission to Mars is a concept that has become the subject of many of the greatest books, films and songs of our time; a subject that captures the public imagination like no other since the Moon landing back in 1969.
Yet, despite this huge public interest and billions of dollars’ worth of investment from governments and private enterprises alike, it’s a mission that not only has yet to be achieved, it hasn’t even been attempted.
It’s not like it’s impossible to get there. In fact, the first successful landing on the Red Planet was all the way back in 1971, when the landing components of Soviet orbiters Mars 2 and Mars 3 touched down, followed some five years later by the US-operated Viking probes, which lead to the first full-colour images of the planet’s surface.
And while there have been numerous further unmanned craft sent to Mars between then and now, with varying levels of success, the idea of sending humans there has so far remained just that — an idea — with technical difficulties, a lack of funding and differing political agendas all condemning every potential project so far.
“The Emirates Mars Mission will give us the first truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere"
Yet, despite the numerous false dawns, a human mission to Mars is still very much on the cards, with the likes of the American, Russian and Chinese national space programmes all planning missions, and private enterprises such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX also making serious progress in its aim to launch a crewed mission by 2024.
Much closer to home, the UAE Space Agency is also setting its sights on a manned mission to Mars. While the country’s plan to launch Mars probe Hope in 2020 is well documented, the Emirates is also working towards a manned mission with its Mars 2117 programme.
“The Mars 2117 programme and the Hope Mars Probe are projects of great importance, as they further boost the UAE’s presence among the international space community,” Omran Sharaf, project manager of Emirates Mars Mission, said of the mission at the World Government Summit in February.
“The Emirates Mars Mission will give us the first truly global picture of the Martian atmosphere and reflect the country’s vision for science and technology fields development. With these projects, we have begun a new journey that will last for decades to come and will speed up human endeavours to explore other planets.”
The UAE is famous for its desire to build the biggest and best of everything, and while it would be easy to assume that the country’s sudden interest in space travel is driven chiefly by its ego, the real reason why the UAE has joined the Red Planet renaissance is, it seems, rooted in good business sense and forward thinking. When you look at the figures, a move towards the space industry makes perfect sense.
US investment bank Morgan Stanley recently predicted that the global space industry could be worth as much as US$1.1 trillion (AED4 trillion) annually by 2040 — a massive increase from the $350 billion (AED1.2 trillion) it was estimated to be worth in 2016.
This move should come as no surprise to those who have witnessed the UAE’s astounding growth. No stranger to preempting the future with its investments, while many fellow GCC states relied strongly on income from vast oil riches, the UAE preferred to diversify its economy, re-investing its wealth in infrastructure, which in turn built tourism. It’s no surprise, then, that with space set to be the modern-day Gold Rush, the UAE is in prime position to take a hefty slice of the pie.
If the UAE is to achieve its galactic goals, youth is very much the key. With this in mind, the country has also launched what it has called the Space Settlement Challenge: a dedicated seed grant fund worth AED2 million that supports ambitious projects from all areas of research, from space settlement to terraforming, ecology and even business model development.
"It’s no surprise, then, that with space set to be the modern-day Gold Rush, the UAE is in prime position to take a hefty slice of the pie"
“We are looking to attract the best from every discipline,” says Noah Raford, the quirkily titled futuristic-chief at the Dubai Future Foundation, which is overseeing the challenge. “It’s not just engineering solutions. We’re looking for social scientists, designers and artists to tackle not just the infrastructural issues around space settlement, but also the business models that are going to help us get off the planet.”
Whether it’s NASA, SpaceX, the Chinese, Landorp’s Mars One or even the UAE’s ambitious project that achieves it, the day when humans walk on Mars is seemingly closer than ever.
Achieving that will unquestionably be a watershed moment for humanity, but those who will really benefit won’t be the brave astronauts who take our first steps into the unknown, but the generation of young minds back on terra firma who put them there.