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Science, Not Prestige: UAE’s Human Spaceflight Programme Is For the Long Haul

NASA Astronaut Bruce McCandless II using a Manned Maneuvering Unit outside Space Shuttle Challenger on shuttle mission STS-41-B in 1984. Photograph courtesy of NASA.

Further to last week’s report that the UAE is in discussions with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, about training and launching Emirati astronauts, further details have emerged out of the 68th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) held in Adelaide, Australia, about the strategic rationale behind the UAE’s human spaceflight programme.

Quoted in US trade publication Space News, Salem Humaid Al Marri, the assistant director general of Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), said that the UAE human spaceflight programme will be a sustainable one that emphasizes science and exploration rather than short-term international prestige.

Speaking on a panel at the 68th IAC, Al Marri said, “This is an initiative from the UAE government to have a sustainable human spaceflight programme … when we talk about sustainable, that means that we are not looking at launching an astronaut for a week or launching a tourist flight, but we’re looking at a program that is based on science.”

Al Marri added that the UAE government will invite applications from Emiratis who wish to join the Emirati astronaut corps by the end of 2017, or the first quarter of 2018 at the latest. From those applications, Al Marri said, four to six candidates will be selected for astronaut training, though the number of candidates will likely be a small number.

“Probably towards the lower end, because obviously all of the astronauts that we train we would also look to fly then at some point,” said Al Marri.

The aim is to launch the first Emirati astronaut in 2021, marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Arab Emirates. This is also the year when the UAE intends to orbit its Hope probe around Mars.

Despite claims by officials from Russia’s Roscosmos, Al Marri said that the MBRSC and the UAE Space Agency have yet to decide which country will put Emirati astronauts into Earth orbit.

“We have not decided on who will be flying us yet,” said Al Marri. “We do envisage that we partner up with all of the major space agencies, somehow and in some structure.”

Al Marri also explicitly linked the UAE human spaceflight programme to the Mars 2117 project that aims to help establish a human colony on Mars by 2117.

“We have a long-term strategy of getting to Mars by 2117, so our astronauts will be working on science that is related to long-term habitation of space … We look at that as a natural next step in the progression of testing some of our experiments and ideas in the ISS [International Space Station] and the space environment,” said Al Marri.’

Along with the human spaceflight programme, the Hope Mars mission, and the Mars 2117 programme, the UAE has also announced the creation of a Mars Science City that will provide a long-term simulated Martian environment that will also contribute to Emirati ambitions to colonize the Red Planet.

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