Saudi Arabia’s ambitious space program gives a taste of exciting collaborations to come

JEDDAH: Over half a century ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first to set foot on the surface of the moon. Since this historic milestone, governments, scientists and now entrepreneurs have set their sights on more distant and ambitious goals.

From Jeff Bezos’ forays into space tourism with Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s dream of establishing colonies on Mars to NASA’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and the UAE’s Hope probe mission to Mars, space, it seems, is all the rage again.

The Apollo astronauts’ memorable moon walk of July 20, 1969, marked the culmination of more than a decade of dizzying scientific advances, fueled by fierce Cold War-era competition between the United States and the United States. Soviet Union known as the ‘Space Race’.

Decades later, and with the benefits of vastly superior technologies, private sector funding and a global wealth of scientific and technical talent, a new space race led by the world‘s emerging economies and the most rich is now underway.

The Saudi Space Commission, or SSC, launched three years ago by royal decree, recently participated in this new space race. Its mission is to accelerate economic diversification, improve research and development, and increase private sector participation in the global space industry.

Since its launch in December 2018, the Kingdom’s state-funded space program has entered into agreements with the European Space Agency, the United Kingdom, France and Hungary to strengthen cooperation.

The agency has also signed agreements with aerospace giant Airbus, joined the International Astronautical Federation and launched illustrious scholarship programs to allow Saudi students to attend top universities in the world offering space science courses. and in aerospace engineering.

Although its space agency is relatively new, the Kingdom has a long history of involvement in satellite technology, much of it stemming from King Abdul Aziz’s City of Science and Technology in Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia also played a key role in the creation by the Arab League of Arabsat, a satellite communications company, which launched its first satellite in 1985.

“The beauty is that you’re not starting from scratch,” Colonel Chris Hadfield, a retired Canadian astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

“Even NASA, when it was formed in the late 1950s, it wasn’t starting from scratch. NACA, which was NASA’s predecessor, had been around since the 1920s when the government recognized that aeronautics was coming.

Hadfield is well known for his hugely popular video segments depicting life aboard the ISS, which included a weightless guitar rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

A highly decorated astronaut, engineer and pilot, he has received numerous awards, including the Order of Canada, the Meritorious Service Cross and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He was also named the top US Air Force and Navy test pilot, and was inducted into the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame.

Hadfield flew three space missions, built two space stations, performed two spacewalks, outfitted the shuttle and Soyuz, and commanded the ISS.

Now retired, he is an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, an advisor to SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, chairman of the board of the Open Lunar Foundation, and author of three international bestsellers. His TED talk on fear has been viewed 11 million times.

According to Hadfield, the SSC should now clearly define its goals for the future of Saudi space exploration.

“The real key is to have a clear goal for what the space agency is trying to accomplish, goals that are consistent with serving the Saudi people in the short and long term,” he said.

The ISS remains a powerful symbol of human brotherhood and of the immense technological and scientific possibilities offered when societies work towards a common goal.

The history of the space station began on July 17, 1975, when Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov and American astronaut Deke Slayton shook hands in microgravity, after docking their spacecraft above the French city of Metz .

The handshake was the byproduct of a 1972 agreement between the two nations to cooperate on the Apollo-Soyuz test project. The United States built a docking module for the Apollo shuttle that was compatible with the Soviet docking system to allow for seamless rendezvous.

Their meeting became a powerful symbol of unity, which paved the way for the joint Shuttle-Mir program and later the ISS itself.

Building a space agency is no small feat. As a multidisciplinary field, the industry requires a wide range of skills and expertise. Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in the sector and already has several achievements to its credit.

In February 2019, the Kingdom launched its first locally developed communications satellite – SGS-1 – from the Guiana Space Center. The launch is the result of a partnership between KACST and US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin.

In 2020, Saudi Arabia announced plans to invest $2.1 billion in the space program as part of its Vision 2030 reform program, the Kingdom’s long-term plan to diversify its economy away from oil. and adopt a wide range of next-generation industries.

Prince Sultan bin Salman (closest to camera) is the first Arab, Muslim and royal in space. (Provided)

“In the times we live in now, space is becoming a fundamental sector of the global economy, affecting all aspects of our life on Earth,” Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first Arab, said at the time. muslim and royal in space.

“The space sector and the space economy are expected to reach trillions of riyals as we move forward. We believe that there are many opportunities in the space sector and we in Saudi Arabia intend to exploit these opportunities. at all levels.

To excel in space, the Kingdom will need an army of technical specialists in fields as diverse as cybersecurity, avionics and robotics, as well as experts in propulsion, machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“If you look across the governments of the world, there’s a subset that works in areas that are naturally tied to space, like telecommunications, atmospheric physics, weather forecasting, or the military side of threats; there is always the advantage of high ground,” Hadfield told Arab News, highlighting the advantages of building a national space industry.

“It’s science just to try to understand the Earth better. If you can go around (the Earth) 16 times a day, if you can tune a geostationary satellite that looks at the whole (Arabian) peninsula, this whole part of the world, there is an enormous amount of information to be collected which is really difficult to collect from the surface.

“Then there is the technological development side. If you want to challenge yourself to build a satellite or build rockets or train people to fly in space or be part of the space station, start putting a permanent human habitation on the moon, that’s it. is a great technological challenge and it is good for the country, from the university side to the manufacturing side.

But more than the obvious economic, scientific and strategic benefits, Hadfield believes investing in space technologies also gives societies a sense of optimism and raises public aspirations.

“Besides scientific research and technical development, it lifts people’s eyes beyond the horizon,” he said.

“Space exploration has an important role to play in inspiring people to visualize a different future, to try things out with their own lives, to train for a new set of skills, and to transform into someone different in the pursuit of being an astronaut that they might otherwise have never been done with themselves. That, to me, is an important part.

Saudi Arabia is well positioned to take advantage of falling rocket launch costs, technological advancements and growing public interest in space exploration. Its willingness to work with other space agencies is also a taste of exciting collaborations to come.

Reflecting on his own career in space, Hadfield said it is this kind of human brotherhood, coupled with an enduring sense of duty, that will enable new innovations and milestones in space exploration.

“It’s a life of service,” he says. “Service to agency, service to country and service to others.”

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