Mars in the short term, Mars in the long term. That’s the public plan for the United Arab Emirates newly established space program. The country’s space agency was born in July 2014 with the announcement of the Hope Mars mission—a probe to study the atmosphere, or lack thereof, on the red planet, scheduled to launch in 2020 and arrive a year later, in time for the 50th anniversary of the UAE’s founding.
Then, just this February, Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum tweeted about a project to “create a mini-city and community on Mars involving international cooperation,” by the year 2117.
That may be surprising. But in many ways, the UAE, the only Arab nation with an organized space agency, is well-situated for these extraterrestrial ambitions. Its location on the southeastern edge of the Persian Gulf is geographically attractive for a future spaceport. Expansive deserts and miles of coastline provide plenty of options for safe rocket launches, and its position near the equator makes it especially appealing as the spin of the Earth provides and extra push, meaning less fuel is needed to get payloads into orbit. And the UAE has already proven adept at building large climate-controlled environments—lush water parks and even a ski resort—on top of its home desert. In this context, a 100-year plan to develop the dry, hostile landscape of Mars doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
As the moon in the 1960s was a proxy for nationalistic pride and scientific and technological gravitas for the U.S. and Soviet Union, so is Mars today for the UAE—a small nation home to fewer than 10 million people, of whom 1.4 million are Emiratis. But at the heart of these Mars efforts is also the ambition for a more diverse economy, one that’s less reliant on oil. Investing in space, the logic goes, is an investment in the future.
So how does a small, oil-rich country build an ambitious space program from scratch?
Step one is to front the money. The space agency has garnered about $5.2 billion in government, private, and semi-private support so far. Compared with, NASA, which has an annual budget of roughly $19 billion, that might not sound like a lot. But NASA is one of the most advanced space programs in the world and operates in a country with a population of more than 300 million.
Step two is to inspire the people. When Sheikha Al Maskari learned that the UAE was forming a space agency, she already had four years’ experience as vice president of corporate affairs at Abu Dhabi Airports Co., where she managed communications, marketing, social responsibility, and branding for five airports. At the time, she says, she was looking for a new challenge and suspected her experience in the aerospace industry would transfer well. By her account, she picked up the phone and soon landed a job, becoming employee No. 3 of the UAESA.
Al Maskari is currently the agency’s chief innovation officer. The job, she explains, has three dimensions that involve looking for ways to apply “innovative approaches” within the agency and the space sector at large. One is to head the communication, branding, and events. Another is to coordinate space efforts within, and between, government divisions and throughout the agency and help make funding decisions. The third is more as a chief space educator developing K-12 and university curricula, helping send students get to space camps and programs abroad, and fostering enrichment activities and innovation at home. In this role, Al Maskari says, she wants to make sure young people are as excited about space as she was as a child when she watched the successes of NASA and its astronauts.
In the United States, President Trump’s proposed budget aims to completely eliminate NASA’s education office responsible for internships, scholarships, and camps as well as supporting women and underrepresented minorities in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields. But at the same time, the UAESA is investing mightily in its education and outreach efforts. So far, Al Maskari thinks it seems to be working. When she first visited schools and asked about career aspirations, most kids aspired to be a pilot, firefighter, or doctor, she says. But, two years in, a growing number of kids say they want to be astronauts.
“To me that’s great,” she says. “We’ve changed the way they’re thinking about space.” Of course, not all will become astronauts, but by inspiring kids to aim for it, Al Maskari says, you send them down the path of STEM fields in general. This is one way to build the country’s “human capacity” in a variety of new industries. The country also hopes to encourage girls and women, in particular, to become a part of space sector. Al Maskari notes that women make up 38 percent of the UAESA’s workforce. On the Hope project, the number’s closer to 40 percent.
Inspiration is a long game, though (as is space). To get things rolling quickly, the UAE hired a several foreign experts. Among them was Frans von der Dunk, professor of space law at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and founder of Black Holes B.V., a consultancy. Von der Dunk’s role has been to advise on policy and strategy and make sure that the newly minted space agency followed laws of international space treaties. These laws apply to the satellites operated by the UAE’s two major satellite companies and the probe being built to orbit Mars, as well as potential future efforts like asteroid mining or private commercial space tourism.
“In the short term, the most important thing is to have the organizational infrastructure that knows how to handle foreign investors,” says von der Dunk. “As much money as [the UAE has], investments in space are gigantic, so they still need to cooperate internationally, and that requires an infrastructure. Established space giants like Boeing and Lockheed won’t start working with an area as small as the UAE if they don’t have their organizational house in order.” He adds that the agency is well on its way and suspects that within five to 10 years, it will have built its own in-house capacity and will rely much less on outside consultants.
Even before the UAESA was formally developed, though, the country was building its international space partnerships. In 2010, the government invested in Virgin Galactic, and today it owns a 37.8 percent share of the company worth about $380 million. It’s also signed Memoranda of Understanding with space programs in countries including China, France, Russia, the U.K., India, and Japan, which establish official partnerships for knowledge-transfer and other resource sharing. And in June of last year, the agency signed an Agreement to Collaborate with NASA, which carries slightly more weight than an MoU.
There was a time in the 19th and early 20th centuries when the states that now make up the UAE relied mostly on pearling for their income. But after the Great Depression, competition from Japan, and high pearl taxes levied by India following World War II, the industry all but vanished. Petroleum became ascendant by the late 1960s, blasting the country to the wealth and prosperity we see today. But, as everyone knows, oil won’t last forever. For the UAE, space is something of an insurance policy. And space—and the way it can spur innovation in related industries—may very well ensure a robust economy in the decades to come.
This article is part of the new space race installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.