Interview: Khalifa Al Romaithi
How do you envision the development of space technology impacting the wider economy?
KHALIFA AL ROMAITHI: As the UAE continues to diversify its economy, the study of space science and technology is becoming increasingly important. The space sector is a pillar of diversity, both in terms of education and technological development. Entering the space industry is about much more than rocket launches; it also requires advanced facilities and specialised research and education programmes.
National investment in technology is growing, and the UAE is developing a long-term strategic plan for a solid and sustainable foundation for advanced space innovation and exploration, both of which are increasingly important to national security and economic advancement. The opportunities are tremendous, certainly from a commercial perspective, as well as in terms of employing satellite applications to emerging economies and increasing regional and global competition in this domain. The industry also faces significant challenges, however, which is to be expected. The aerospace sector carries with it inherent risk, and the implementation of a successful space programme is no small victory.
The UAE’s roots in the space industry reach back to 1976, when the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan met the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) team responsible for the Apollo Moon programme. Decades later, in April 1997, the nation’s first satellite operator, Thuraya, was founded. Currently, the UAE operates seven satellites for both commercial and military use. Entities like Thuraya, Yahsat and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre have been operating successfully for many years.
The UAE space programme is guiding the development of industrial, research and education partnerships with companies and foreign institutions, driving the creation of new, high-value technical jobs. Education is perhaps the most important element of our whole programme. Space technology has applications in a wide variety of industries, and building capacity in engineering and research has enormous knock-on effects. We hope to raise awareness and support for the sector; assist with the development of education in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), and space-specific curriculums; hire graduates into the space sector; and employ talented Emiratis to become leaders of the industry.
The UAE government is keen on developing a significant pool of Emirati know-how in the area to eventually enable self-reliance in the country. In the meantime, the UAE is working with key institutions like NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, to train the next generation of engineers – investments that will serve us for years to come. There are big opportunities in supporting the wider economy.
What do you see as critical components of the UAE plan to send a probe to Mars?
AL ROMAITHI: We aim to be among the top countries worldwide in space technology by 2021 and the Hope Probe’s journey as the first Arab robotic spacecraft to reach Mars is a perfect embodiment of this goal. The unmanned Hope Probe will travel more than 60m km in nine months and will be launched to coincide with the celebration of the UAE’s 50th anniversary.
Already the Emirates Mars Mission is playing a critical role in the development of the UAE’s native space industry. The mission is encouraging domestic innovation in advanced technologies, boosting cooperation and collaboration between the UAE and its international partners, and inspiring a generation of youth to enter and study in STEM fields.
Even beyond the UAE, we have always felt that an initiative on such a large-scale was sorely needed on an international level, as it inspires the region’s youth and gives them something to strive for in the future.
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