Op-ed | More than Hope, UAE is transforming its future in space
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a founder and former president of the United Arab Emirates, once said, “History is a continuous chain of events. The present is only an extension of the past.”
This speaks to the UAE’s history, but also, its future, and nowhere is it truer than in the country’s endeavors in space.
In February, the UAE’s Hope probe reached Mars orbit, making the country the fifth nation to reach the Red Planet. The success of the Emirates Mars Mission stands alone as an admirable accomplishment, but Hope is not an end unto itself. Rather, while the satellite is a vehicle for science, the process of creating and delivering it to Mars has been a vehicle for economic and societal transformation.
Looking at how the UAE is building its space ecosystem reveals why its approach is a model for using space to fuel economic potential, workforce development and international collaboration.
A Space Strategy for Economic Transformation
The UAE Space Agency was founded just 7 years ago, and at the time, the domestic intellectual and physical infrastructure for space activities was nascent. Engineering expertise, planetary science capacity, a high-precision manufacturing base—these necessary components of a space ecosystem were either only in their formative stages or absent entirely.
The Hope mission was a nationwide catalyst for transformation, and it was meaningful not just for space leadership but for the cascading impact across the Emirates. This was a strategic effort. The UAE Centennial 2071 plan is a roadmap identifying priorities for the nation over the next 50 years, including in education, economic diversity, a cohesive society and a future-focused government. Investing in and pursuing space endeavors invigorates these core areas.
Hope is the beginning of a 100-year venture to establish a research settlement on Mars. Of the many next steps, one is a 2024 rover mission to the moon and another is the Mars Scientific City, a planned complex of Earth-based buildings designed to study how to work and live on Mars. The benefits of this project will not take a century to realize.
Agricultural researchers will study how to grow food in harsh terrains, something that is immediately valuable to the UAE given that the country imports up to 80% to 90% of its food. The Mars Scientific City will also host research into valuable emerging technologies like 3D printing, artificial intelligence and robotics. It will be a place for furthering the UAE Space Agency’s human spaceflight program, which after UAE astronaut Hazzaa Al Mansouri’s 2019 trip to the International Space Station is poised for growth. And it will be an essential laboratory for the growing interest among young Emiratis heading to universities.
For all nations, space is about much more than science and technology opportunities, and the UAE sees the broader potential.
“One of the main objectives of the UAE Space Agency is identifying how to help the parallel sectors grow,” said Malak Trabelsi Loeb, founder and CEO of Dubai-based Vernewell Space Solutions. “Space is an enabler. It is a sector that is going to generate a significant percentage of the GDP through an amplifier effect, such as with satellite technologies, space-based exploration and workforce development.”
Space as a Catalyst for Investment and Innovation
Historically, the UAE’s economy has been based on hydrocarbon exports, tourism and logistics. Today, the nation is diversifying, and space is playing a critical role. The UAE is using its space efforts to build experience, attract talent and create an environment where industry can flourish, as UAE Space Agency Chairwoman Sarah Al Amiri said during a virtual event with The Hill.
“The next big bet when it comes to the space sector in the Emirates is transferring a lot of the experiences that we’ve gained over the course of the last 15 years and transferring that onto the private sector,” she said. “This is fundamental to enabling the new space economy that other countries are also capitalizing on.”
The nexus between entrepreneurship, academia, and public and foreign investment is yielding breakthrough opportunities. As an example, consider how the UAE’s 2019 MySat-1 CubeSat made it to space. Built by students at Khalifa University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, in partnership with the UAE’s Al Yah Satellite Communications Company (Yahsat), MySat-1 was launched on an Antares rocket and carried to the International Space Station on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft, where it was deployed by the External NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer. MySat-2 was developed and deployed in the same way in February 2021. This is what a thriving global space ecosystem looks like—research, business and innovation coming together to achieve success in space and return those benefits to daily life on Earth.
As a component of this growing ecosystem, the UAE is attracting foreign investment to support the 2020 UAE Space Law’s attention to space mining, logistics and debris management, each of which could become lucrative components of the commercial space sector. The UAE also hosts 44 “free zones” that offer facilities, networks, and favorable ownership and tax rules, all designed to attract entrepreneurship and innovation. NanoRacks, for example, has an office in Hub71, the tech incubator within Abu Dhabi’s Global Market free zone.
Beyond business and innovation, however, a vital component of success in space is a steady flow of inspired young people charting a career in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, as well as essential non-STEM skills (artists, trade workers, data analysts, project managers and business administrators) — all important contributors to the space ecosystem. In this, Hope is living up to its namesake.
Building the Space Ecosystem Workforce
A message that permeates discussions on the UAE’s space ambitions is the concept of inspiring and educating younger generations to explore careers in science and technology. The Hope mission was intended to, in part, excite students in the UAE and across the Middle East to embrace their potential to lead in STEM. An early study reveals that it already has. A report by University College London found that five UAE universities have launched new science undergraduate courses, existing science degrees are receiving more enrollments, and the Emirates Mars Mission Outreach and Engagement program has reached 50,000 secondary and primary students, as well as about 1,000 teachers.
The more students who find inspiration in space exploration and space-inspired industries on Earth, the more the global space ecosystem will thrive on their eventual participation. This is one reason why Space Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding with the Al Suwaidi Private Office & Group to explore how we can offer educational content and career development opportunities for students and families in the UAE.
These kinds of initiatives cultivate a space-ready workforce. As the founder of the Al Suwaidi Foundation and Abu Dhabi Arts Society Dr. Hamed Bin Mohamed Khalifa Al Suwaidi said, “The UAE is proud to have been one to record outstanding achievements within a short time frame from the dedication of the young Emirati generation. Alongside our colleagues around the world, we are eager to discover more and prepare our generation to continue the journey we started.”
Indeed, considering Sheikh Zayed’s statement that the present is a continuation of the past, it is inspiring to imagine a future Emirati citizen standing on Mars, where they reflect that their exploration is part of the chain of history that is being forged today to improve life on Earth for all people.
Shelli Brunswick is chief operating officer of Space Foundation, Colorado Springs, Colorado.