Earlier this month the UAE began a recruitment drive for its first astronauts. Last week US President Donald Trump last week urged Nasa to send astronauts back to the moon.
Meanwhile, both the UAE and Nasa are pressing ahead with their Mars programmes.
Both the UAE Space Agency and commercial aerospace giant Boeing are looking to a new golden age of space exploration — a sector of the space industry that has been eclipsed for decades by the commercial space sector’s emphasis on satellites. Now the UAE Space Agency (UAESA) and Nasa are looking outward once more, their eyes fixed on the red planet. Mars beckons.
This, UAESA Director of Space Missions Management Khalid Al Hashmi hopes, will bring new excitement to space exploration and attract young people to work in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
UAESA has several Mars projects on the pipeline. First up is its Mars probe, Hope, which completed its critical design review this year and is on track to launch in 2020 and reach Mars in 2021. Its mission is to study the Martian atmosphere and climate.
The agency is also developing Mars City, a UAE-based research and development project aimed at simulating life on Mars, specialising in experiments relating to agriculture and water. Al Hashmi said Mars City will be operational within three years.
The UAE has already invested more than $5.4 billion (Dh19.8 billion) in space technology, including the efforts of UAE-based companies such as Thuraya and Al Yah Sat, and investments are growing around 10 per cent a year. UAESA’s projects are aimed at scientific exploration, rather than commercial exploitation.
“It has to be academic,” Al Hashmi said. “In space exploration, you need local universities if you want to develop local capabilities — engineers and scientists. Our model is one of cooperation with local universities.”
The long-term goal is a manned Mars mission by 2117.
The UAE’s space programme is a government-funded endeavour with strategic goals — UAESA lists national pride, innovation, commitment, excellence and collaboration among its goals alongside attracting young people into STEM subjects.
Boeing’s involvement in Mars projects is commercial. And space is not a regular commercial market.
“In space the commercial market is just emerging,” John Elbon, Director of Global Sales and Marketing for Space Exploration at Boeing, said. “We have a lot of supply. There are people who are building transportations systems, people who are building destinations in low-Earth orbit, but there really isn’t a demand that’s substantial enough to cover the costs and make it commercial. So people that talk about commercial space really still have the government as their primary customer, and they talk about delivering a private-industry managed service rather than a customer-managed service. It’s to be determined if that’s more efficient or not.”
Peter McGrath, Boeing’s Director of Programmes and New Business, Space Exploration, who was inspired to become an engineer when he watched moonshots as a four year old, said the firm had been involved with the UAE’s space exploration projects since UAESA was founded, notably with the competitive Genes in Space programme, designed to test the effects of microgravity on DNA. UAE schoolgirl Alia Al Mansouri’s proposed experiment was sent to the International Space Station in August.
“An analogy we always talk about is that it’s not much different than the airline industry,” McGrath said. “The airline industry started when it was all government operated. And then there were commercial contracts for postal services, so it wasn’t just the government doing it, now they were contracting commercially. Then you had passengers flying. And now you have a lot of passengers flying.
“The one difference, though, in the airline industry there’s destinations and a purpose to travel. In space, there’s purpose to travel, which is to explore and discover and see what you find. And there are technologies that come back that help us. If you’d asked me I couldn’t have told you all the things we’d have got out of the Apollo programme — as you try to solve hard problems, there’s terrestrial applications come out of that.
“Governments lead and commercial follows. Governments have to take the first steps because the business cases aren’t there to drive a purely commercial venture now.”
But there are more than commercial interests at heart.
Tool for diplomacy and cooperation
“One of the really good things that comes out of human space flight — and space station has been a great example of that — is countries around the world cooperating together,” said Elbon. “Human space flight becomes a real soft tool for diplomacy.
“We’re working with countries that are starting space programmes — countries like the UAE — to get them involved in working with the rest of the countries involved.”
Boeing is one of the companies involved in building Nasa’s space shuttle replacement, the Space Launch System (SLS), the most powerful rocket ever built. It’s initial version, Block 1, due to launch in 2019 will be able to lift a payload of 70 tonnes into low-Earth orbit (LEO). When its space-shuttle-derived boosters are replaced with advanced boosters for Block 2, it will be capable of lifting 130 tonnes.
The SLS is ultimately intended to reopen deep space exploration. Block 1B is intended to deliver elements of Nasa’s Deep Space Gateway, a manned space station orbiting between Earth and the Moon, intended to act as a staging post for both lunar and Mars missions. Block 2 of the SLS is intended to participate in Nasa’s Mars missions, still on track for 2035, which will see the Deep Space Transport using the Deep Space gateway as a staging post.
“Those of us that work in this industry relish the challenge of building the vehicles that will do that, of solving the problems that need to be solved so that we can do that,” Elbon said.
“There are a lot of things we’re learning on the International Space Station, which is close to Earth, how to live and work in space, what happens to human bodies in weightlessness and how we counter that, how we have systems that manage the atmosphere in a spacecraft and do that in a reliable way. In space there’s radiation that comes from the sun that we have to protect the crew from.
“Those kinds of things we’re learning first from the International Space Station, which is close to Earth and if we have a problem we can come home. And then we’ll go out to the area around the Moon and practice again and learn more there. And then we’ll be ready to go on to Mars.”
He added: “I don’t think there’s a cooler project to be working on.”
The UAE Space Sector
* Major public players: The UAE Space Agency, Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre
* Major private players: Thuraya, Yahsat
* Satellites: 6 in orbit (four communications satellites, two remote sensing satellites), with 6 more in the pipeline, including the Hope Mars Probe and the MeznSat environment monitoring nanosatellite and the UAE-designed and built KhalifaSat Earth observation satellite.
* Workforce: Currently around 500 people working in the space sector, half of them Emirati.
* Investments: Currently around $5.4 billion, with annual growth of 10 per cent.
Source: Gulf News