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Astronaut’s history-making mission is the latest step for a nation with grand space ambitions

<i>Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi
Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
UAE astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi

By Eoin McSweeney and Brooke Jenner, CNN

(CNN) — Floating upside down, while excitedly moving a microphone about in mid-air, astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi laughed when asked if he’s ever seen aliens.

“Not yet,” he replied, before pulling out a blue plush toy dressed in a space suit. “But everybody thinks that Sohail (the toy) is an alien. So, if he is an alien, then yes.”

Dubbed the “Sultan of Space,” Al Neyadi, who is from the United Arab Emirates, has spent three months delighting crowds of schoolkids across the Gulf state and teaching them about the wonders of the universe via videolink — all while floating hundreds of kilometers away on the International Space Station.

When he’s not entertaining Earthlings, Al Neyadi spends his days making repairs on the orbiting laboratory and conducting experiments for NASA. Already the first Arab to be deployed on a long-term space mission, in April he also became the first Arab astronaut to perform a spacewalk. The purpose of the spacewalk was to update the ISS power channels, and it lasted seven hours.

“I didn’t feel it because I was really focusing on the mission, and it was (a) really great feeling just to see that you are floating in a spacesuit,” Al Neyadi told CNN’s Becky Anderson. “It’s just like a small spacecraft. It provides oxygen and CO2 scrubbing and cooling, and what is preventing you from dying is just a small layer of glass.”

Al Neyadi’s mission is just the latest space-related milestone for the UAE, a nation that is quickly becoming the leading power for galactical exploration in the Arab world. CNN dialed into the ISS from the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) in Dubai, which has become the incubator for the Gulf state’s ambitions in the cosmos.

The ‘new oil’

Established in 2006, the MBRSC launched its first satellite in 2009 and the first fully UAE-built orbital, KhalifaSat, in 2018. Its crowning achievement to date came in 2021 with the Hope Probe, the first Arab mission to Mars. And MBRSC plans to launch its biggest satellite to date, the MBZ-SAT, next year.

This investment in space is not about curiosity about the cosmos — it’s part of a wider plan to build the UAE’s post-oil economy. In a fast-paced international space race, where superpowers like the United States and China are the competition, a strategic vision is key.

“Our objective is always to try and do these exciting projects that really put the UAE at the forefront of exploration,” MBRSC director-general Salem Al Marri told CNN while giving a tour of the facilities. “It’s all about data. They say the new gold or the new oil is data.”

The programs there are part of a burgeoning global space industry, which is worth about a half trillion dollars now and set to double in size by 2030, according to McKinsey. The satellites the UAE has sent to space can already track data on things like climate change and urban growth, while technology elsewhere is being used to improve internet speeds and the processing of credit card transactions.

“So if you’re tracking cars, if you’re looking at planes, environmental purposes, whatever it may be, there’s hundreds if not thousands of applications that you can use from one image,” Al Marri said.

Conquering space with homegrown talent

Al Marri is particularly excited about the potential of UAE-built satellites, including KhalifaSat and the soon to be launched MBZ-SAT. The nation doesn’t just want to launch the orbitals, but build an industry around them.

“What’s beautiful about this satellite is it’s fully designed by our team here,” said Al Marri, speaking about the MBZ-SAT. “All of the project management, every single piece you see here is designed and project managed by our team.”

The last decade has seen a dramatic shift in the nature of space exploration. While once the remit of governments and national programs, more recently private companies and billionaires have taken it upon themselves to push the boundaries of what humans know about the universe — especially as the monetization of the cosmos becomes more feasible.

“Space is predominantly government-led, so there’s big investments from government because of the need for these types of satellites. But that doesn’t mean private sector cannot lead the development,” Al Marri said. “In a country like the UAE, this is funded by the government, it’s supervised by the government, but private sector now is building it.”

It’s not just satellites that are a potential gold mine — space tourism is also a new frontier. Elon Musk’s Space X and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin have already given tourists a glimpse of the cosmos. And just this week, Virgin Galactic launched its first commercial crewed spaceflight.

The UAE will soon be exploring this area of the industry, too.

“I think space tourism is the way for the general public, or at least the very wealthy general public, to get a chance to taste a little bit of weightlessness and be part of the space industry,” Al Marri said. “The UAE could play a role there.”

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