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The Arabs Who Have Made Strides in the Region’s Space Race

Photographed by Bassam Allam

From the time Arab astronomers craned their necks upwards to observe the stars during the Islamic world’s “Golden Age” in the ninth century to UAE becoming the first Arab country to reach Mars, we’ve come a long way. Ancient observatories in Middle Eastern cities such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Istanbul mapping the sky to set dates for religious festivals and for astrology back then have led to modern-day Arabs making celestial history for the books and breaking record after record as they join the space race.

Photographed by Bassam Allam

Taking Middle Eastern representation to literal heights, they have moved on to outer space for their mission to not just explore but make the region proud. Carrying a remarkable repository filled to the brim with scientific advancements and milestones outside of both Earth’s realm and our imagination, here is a timeline of the progress they have helped to make with their out-of-this-world ventures.

Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, 1985

Photo: Flickr/NASA

Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud broke not one, not two, but three records while boarding the spaceship he owned on the night of June 17, 1985. He was the first Arab, the first Muslim, and the first member of a royal family to travel into space. Chosen by the US federal government agency National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a payload specialist for the STG-51G space shuttle mission, he flew into the vast world of outer space at 28,968 kilometers per hour alongside a seven-member international crew. Strapped into seat seven as one of two payload specialists on the flight deck of Discovery, the royal was launched on pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, United States. This was emblematic for the prince, who, as a 13-year-old boy in Riyadh, had watched the grainy television footage of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, which had taken off from the same site on July 16, 1969.

Watched and applauded by more than 200 Arab guests of NASA, the prince completed 111 orbits of the Earth for seven days, one hour, 38 minutes and 52 seconds until June 24, 1985.

In December 2018, he was appointed chairman of the newly formed Saudi Space Commission (SSC).

Muhammed Faris, 1987

Muhammad Faris (center). Photo: Getty

Known as the Neil Armstrong of the Arab world, Aleppo-born Muhammed Faris is no stranger to breaking records. A pilot and air force officer, he became the second Arab and first Syrian spaceman to enter outer space from 60 fellow Syrian candidates during the Interkosmos training program for allies of the Soviet Union at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center just outside Moscow. Eventually making it down to the last four chosen Syrians, Faris flew into space as a research “cosmonaut,” a name for astronauts fielded by Russia or the Soviet Union, onboard the Soyuz TM-3 spacecraft on July 22, 1987. Along with Faris, two Soviet cosmonauts, Aleksandr Viktorenko and Aleksandr P. Aleksandrov, were part of the crew, and together they conducted several research experiments in the fields of space medicine and materials processing.

Flying for seven days, 23 hours and five minutes, Faris returned to Earth on July 30, 1987. For his accomplishments as a cosmonaut, he was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, and he also bagged the Order of Lenin, the Soviet Union’s highest civilian decoration. In Syria, Faris is a national hero, with a school, airport and roads named after him.

Sarah Al Amiri, 2014

Sarah Al Amiri. Photo: WAM

The UAE recently became successful in sending a spacecraft into orbit around Mars on the first try, which can be credited to the mission’s deputy project manager Sarah Al Amiri, an Iranian-born computer engineer and also the country’s first Minister of State for Advanced Technology since 2017. The mission was announced in 2014 and the Hope probe was launched on July 19, 2020, succeeding in entering the planet’s orbit on February 9, 2021. The holder of many titles has notable achievements behind her, as she took part in building the UAE’s first two satellites – DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2, and the first entirely Emirati-made KhalifaSat.

As a result, the 33-year-old Chairwoman of the UAE Space Agency was also named as one of the American magazine Time’s 2021 list of the Next 100 Most Influential People in the World for successfully leading the first-ever Arab interplanetary mission. In 2015, the World Economic Forum honored her as one of its 50 Young Scientists for her contributions to science, technology and engineering. She became the first citizen of UAE to speak at an international TED event in 2017 and was covered by British news organization BBC’s 100 Women, a documentary series that examines the role and lives of women in the 21st century globally.

Hazza Al Mansouri, 2019

His Highness Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and Hazzaa Al Mansouri. Photo: WAM

Maj. Hazza Al Mansouri is the first astronaut from the United Arab Emirates to venture into space, making UAE the 19th country to visit the modular space station in low Earth orbit, the International Space Station (ISS), because of his incredible journey. Launching to space aboard the Soyuz MS-15 spacecraft on September 25, 2019, the Abu Dhabi-born former outstanding pilot in the UAE armed forces became the youngest to fly the UAE air force’s F-16B160, one of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With more than 14 years’ experience in military aviation, he trained in Russia for a year to learn the Russian language, know more about the Soyuz spacecraft and familiarize his body with the harsh conditions of space, followed by a rigorous 30-month training program at NASA, where he and his fellow reserve astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi performed spacewalks and flew supersonic jets in preparation for future space missions.

Onboard, Al Mansouri conducted 16 scientific experiments onboard the spacecraft, six of which were in microgravity to study the reaction of vital indicators in the human body, returning after eight days on October 3, 2019. Al Mansouri and Al Neyadi are currently training at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, under an agreement between the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre and NASA.

Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammad Al Mulla, 2021

Nora Al Matrooshi. Photo: WAM

On their way to be added to the list of Arabs in space, Nora Al Matrooshi and Mohammad Al Mulla are undergoing a training plan within the UAE before joining their colleagues Al Mansouri and Al Neyadi at NASA’s 2021 Astronaut Candidate Class in Johnson Space Center in the United States, chosen from a pool of 4,305 Emiratis who applied. Only 65 women from around the world have been in space, and 27-year-old Al Matrooshi, the first female Arab astronaut, is on the path to becoming the 66th. She will be accompanied by Dubai Police’s youngest helicopter pilot, Al Mulla, who has more than 1,500 flight hours under his belt.

Chosen from over 4,000 candidates to be trained for future space exploration missions, Al Matrooshi has worked for Abu Dhabi’s National Petroleum Construction Company, which builds oil and gas platforms for companies. Passionate about encouraging the youth within the MENA region, she went on to represent the UAE at the UN International Youth Conference in both 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, Al Mulla works as a pilot at the Air Wing Centre and is also the head of the training department there; his career spans an impressive 15 years since age 19. He also received a bravery medal from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai.

Photographed by Bassam Allam

Read Next: 8 Things to Know About Nora Al Matrooshi, the First Female Arab Astronaut

Photography and art direction: Bassam Allam
Style: Lorand Lajos
Makeup and hair: Tamara Kraner
Model: Aline H at Munich Models

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