Last July, Mohsen Al Awadhi watched from Dubai as the Hope spacecraft took off from a launchpad at the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, heading for Mars. The lead engineer on the project, Al Awadhi, had been putting in 100-hour weeks, and, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down most international travel, he and his spacecraft had to reach the launch site in an old Ukrainian cargo plane.
This February, he will be nervously waiting as Hope makes its final descent toward Mars. The success rate of missions to the red planet is only around 30%, and most endeavors are more than a decade in the making. Al Awadhi’s young team — whose average age is 29 — had just six years, and much of the technology onboard was homegrown and based on open source, as their government pushed them to “build, not buy” their way into space.
“[The brief was:] Make sure you understand what you’re thinking about but don’t take forever to do it,” Al Awadhi told Rest of World.
Hope is a headline-grabbing mission but one with a deeper purpose. The Emirati government believes that it will inspire a new generation of scientists and technologists, spur the decoupling of the economy from hydrocarbons, and ensure that the country has a seat at the table when the global community decides on how to carve up space.
“It’s not all about the big superpowers anymore dominating space,” said Wendy Whitman Cobb, author of “Privatizing Peace: How Commerce Can Reduce Conflict in Space.” “A lot of these smaller actors have the potential to change the dynamics in space.”
Al Awadhi joined the Mohamad Bin Rashid Space Center in 2014, the year that the UAE officially established its national space agency. The country had begun its first forays into space in 2006 and has since launched two satellites in partnership with South Korean engineers, but opening the center — with a stated aim of diversifying the Emirati economy away from hydrocarbons and of building new international partnerships — was a real statement of intent. KhalifaSat, the UAE’s first locally designed and manufactured satellite, was launched in 2018.
Al Awadhi, who had been inspired to study engineering by his uncle, a pilot, expected to end up working in the oil and gas industry like most Emirati engineers but had managed to find a job at an airline after graduation. He jumped at the chance to move to the center to help design an unmanned aerial vehicle. The $200 million Hope mission was announced later that year. “I was excited for sure — first of all, that I was even considered to work on this mission,” Al Awadhi told Rest of World.
With the global space sector estimated to generate $1 trillion in revenues by 2040, governments across the world are investing in laying the groundwork for a domestic industry, joining the rush into orbit but also hoping to spur growth in a broad range of businesses, from IT infrastructure to precision manufacturing to advanced food technology.
This is likely to bring the UAE political advantages as well as economic ones. Although the early years of space exploration were defined by competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the community is now far more collaborative across borders. When the Hope probe reaches the red planet, atmospheric data about the surface will be relayed back to the scientific community worldwide and will be available for other researchers to build on.
“I think that’s the foundation on which we can build to greater levels of cooperation and transparency,” Whitman Cobb said. “In political science, you call them trust- and confidence-building measures.”
Space, Whitman Cobb said, is an area where countries are going to have to learn to cooperate. Many technologies can have scientific, commercial, and military functions all at the same time. “So, a robot that can grab a piece of debris in space and get rid of it because that debris is dangerous can also be used to latch onto a satellite and destroy it,” she said. Being an active participant gives a country like the UAE a voice in the debates over how space is used and governed.
Beyond the immediate commercial and political benefits, the UAE government hopes that the ambitious mission will inspire young people to follow Al Awadhi and his colleagues and study science. As of 2017, less than a third of Emirati university students were enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs. To try to address a looming shortage of skills, the country has allocated more than 20% of its federal budget toward an overhaul of the education system.
The Mars effect may already be working. In 2016, Hala ElHag used her government’s ambitious and vocal goals about investing in space to convince her parents to let her study physics. “So many of my relatives watched that, and they were really proud of what I’m doing. They were changing their mind about studying physics,” she said. ElHag, 24, is now a master’s student at the university of Hamburg in Germany. She said that society as a whole is starting to understand the potential of a STEM education.
For Al Awhadi, this is mission accomplished. The $200 million that the UAE is spending on reaching Mars is not an enormous investment in the context of the billions spent by other nations, but for a small country like the UAE, “it’s a big deal,” Al-Awadhi said. “But people have to understand why sometimes you have to spend money to show your intentions: doing science and bringing a better future for the next generation.”