Author name: Mr. Ahmed Al Mansoori, EIAST Director General
Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
Space programmes always contain elements of fantasy and science fiction – often as a dream of intergalactic human quest. For some, space conjures up enemies, spy photos and nightmares of warheads and delivery vehicles. A friend of mine describing a satellite once said rather cynically: “All it does is take photos of your enemies.” But is that really the purpose of a typical satellite?
For us at the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST), the UAE space programme blends the imagination of dreams and the realities of the economic challenges all countries face, especially rapidly advancing countries such as the UAE.
The UAE’s space programme’s quest is for space science and technological advancement to strengthen the foundation of a sustainably developing economy. The space programme, thus, is an attempt to allow an accumulation of the technological wherewithal to make the UAE economy truly knowledge-based. The Arab community is beginning to see that a world increasingly dependent on accurate data in its decision-making requires more than natural resources.
We are aware that a space programme can also mean joining “the big blue marble society”, members of which grow accustomed to looking back at Earth from space and seeing all humanity as dwellers in a single village. Less romantically perhaps, a space programme is essentially not about space. Rather, it pursues a commitment to use advanced science and technology to unlock the future. EIAST, for example, seeks to raise consciousness of, and an appetite for, modern science.
This requires matching the country’s education programmes to development needs. Young students, by sharing their excitement and achievement with their peers and families, will spread this understanding. They can be at the forefront of opening the country’s mind to science by opening the doors to space.
More concretely, the space programme in the UAE has done valuable work in forging human teams capable of designing orbiting satellites and of focusing brain power to extract maximum social and economic benefit from the data those satellites transmit.
Satellites, whether lower-orbit telecommunication satellites or Earth observation satellites, provide valuable data that help all of us to live the way we do. They support our communication networks, deliver us news and entertainment, and help us to monitor natural disasters.
Through well-planned observation and research, constellation of satellites and ground station technologies will lead to many improvements. They will help with urban and rural development, as well as mapping and strategic analysis for sectors such as utilities – gas pipelines, electricity, wireless communication – and transportation. Satellite data will help in the plotting of more effective and efficient roadways. It could help discover new ways to generate energy, grow and harvest food or even heal diseases.
The data from satellites are only cogs, however. They require a strategy team to assemble them and put them to work. Then we can reap the benefit.
Knowledge does not come easily. Making progress requires firstly a change in attitudes so that people are more open to science and technology. We need this change in order to create scientists and researchers. We also need to understand the importance of providing an environment that allows their development so that we can recover from the “haemorrhage of minds” that took place when we lacked it.
Many Arab scientists had to leave their homeland for other countries where the advanced science nourished them, where they could discover new questions and develop their abilities to answer them, where they could feel they were of use to humanity.
We at EIAST have learned these lessons.
Conventional education was adept at serving society’s traditional needs: creating a technician or an engineer, giving the student a sense of professionalism. Yet it generally failed to put that mind to work on real problems.
Walking that less-travelled path, we committed ourselves to finding and nurturing local people. We learned that we can find talented persons but that we have to train them. We have found ways to turn an engineer into a payload integration specialist, for example.
This was not easy, but it was a challenge we held dear in our hearts because we chose to invest in local talent rather than import ready-made scientists. We have “grown our own”, so to speak.
Today EIAST takes pride that 100 per cent of our scientists and engineers are Emiratis. This is significant and new for the UAE, where most graduates have aspired to become business executives or financial wizards. But further, it is proof that any Arab nation can achieve in these new spheres of endeavour provided they have the will and they plan well.
Through the daily development of certain space programme activities, EIAST has established centres of excellence.
For example, the Earth Observation Centre builds the satellites and the ground stations; it manages communications and initial data processing. The Special Information Centre creates products for any geographically referenced location. EIAST expects to inaugurate soon a Graduate Institute for Scientific Research to offer postgraduate studies and specialised training programmes.
This, in turn, will mean allocating funds for research and initiating new projects. We want the UAE to lead rather than follow.
Commercial enterprises around the world will benefit from such space programmes. Spin-offs from this research will become the seeds for new high-tech industries in the UAE. And UAE scientists and technicians will begin to take their place at the forefront of human endeavour.
In the long run this will make the UAE an active partner with other research organisations around the globe – such organisations as Nasa. The UAE and other Arab nations are trying to move to a position where they can contribute to space projects instead of being only the receivers of the technology of others.
Science, however, is only as good as policymakers make it. The fact that military funds have been the driving force for technological advancement is indicative of how those making decisions view science and technology.
This is one of the reasons many are suspicious of the Iran’s technological efforts, be it in nuclear energy or the development of rocket and satellite technology.
Knowledge can easily be turned to be to the wrong use. Faith provides a proper basis to ensure such technology is used for the greater good of humanity. Faith, however, is not easy to obtain and is very easy to lose.
In essence, placing a satellite in space or a probe in Mars’s orbit is not about conquering space or dominating Earth. It is about understanding ourselves better as humans and how our daily actions are affecting the planet our offspring will inherit.
A satellite in space can help us see that we are all part of the human race, facing the same difficulties and sharing a common destiny. From far above in space, all the differences we see when we stand on a border fade away. From far above we do not take picture of our enemies, I have realised, but of ourselves.