It was the early ’70s. Fresh on the heels of man taking his first step on the moon, the global scientific community was abuzz with excitement.
It was a momentous period not just for scientists and explorers but for anyone taking a step to create a successful future for themselves and their countries.
The UAE Minister of State, Zaki Nusseibeh, remembers the time. An advisor to the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan during that period, Zaki recalls the zeal and commitment UAE’s founding father had when it came to exploring the frontiers of science and education to take his country into the future. It was Shaikh Zayed’s dream to power the UAE on the back of science and technology, the minister said recently during a webinar on the UAE’s Hope Mars Mission.
The discussion, part of a series called Literary Conversations Across Borders, was launched by the UAE Office of Public and Cultural Diplomacy and the Emirates Literature Foundation. Apart from Zaki, participants included Dr Farouk El-Baz, Nasa space scientist and geologist, and Salem Al Marri, head of the UAE Astronaut Programme at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre.
Even at that nascent period of space exploration, Shaikh Zayed had an open mind and nurtured a dream of making UAE a power to reckon with in the field of space science and technology. To underscore that, Zaki has a treasure trove of incidents to narrate, thanks to the time he spent as an advisor to the late President.
He remembers a time back in the early 70s when he had accompanied Shaikh Zayed on a tour of Spain. “We were in Granada when one evening a programme about man’s landing on the moon came up on television,” says Zaki.
Shaikh Zayed was watching the programme intently. “Several advisors and dignitaries were also watching the programme, but some were sceptical of the moon landing,” says Zaki. They found it hard to believe that the images they were seeing on TV of Neil Armstrong were actually transmitted from the moon. One of the members in the delegation, Shaikh Mansouri, said that he found it hard to believe man could go to the moon, Zaki recalls.
Shaikh Zayed, however, had an open mind. “If it is God’s will, man can achieve anything; nothing is impossible,” UAE’s founding father told the group.
“Now, barely a few decades later, one of Shaikh Mansouri’s grandchildren is our hero; Hazza Al Mansouri realised a dream that Shaikh Zayed had for his country and became the first astronaut from the UAE to go to the International Space Station!”
Thirst for scientific knowledge
Dr Faroukh El Baz, too, remembers the late President’s thirst for scientific knowledge. Shaikh Zayed was not only passionate about science and space explorations but also keen to inculcate in students a love for science, says the Nasa scientist. “I remember meeting him in 1974 to discuss the scientific results of the Apollo moon mission and I found him to be extremely interested in all the details – he wanted to know how the astronauts survived in space, how they did various experiments, how they managed to bend to pick up rocks from the moon surface… he had a very interesting questions to ask.”
Faroukh recalls telling Shaikh Zayed that he had a bunch of pictures from the Nasa space mission which he wanted to show to students in the region, hoping it would trigger an interest in them to pursue science. “I told Shaikh Zayed that I’d be going to the Abu Dhabi Boys school to speak to the students there. I still remember; he looked at me sternly and said, ‘…[I want you to] speak to the girls’ school as well’.”
History in the making
Faroukh would meet the Founding Father many more times, and during all those visits, Shaikh Zayed would ask him several questions about the various space programmes. “He’d ask such fascinating questions about space and space missions,” says Faroukh.
Zaki nods in agreement. The UAE minister considers it a privilege to be able to witness space history being created with the launch of UAE’s Hope Mission to Mars coming just five decades since Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon.
“You really cannot help but compare what we are seeing today with what we saw 50 years ago,” says Zaki. “Fifty years ago there were imposing challenges that stood in our path including the establishment of a free state.
“We had a man who came with a vision and a dream; his vision was adopted by his Ruler brothers and in spite of difficulties… the space programme went ahead and the UAE continues to surge ahead. And today, we are witnessing an event that prepares the country – and the region – for the future, as UAE’s Hope probe heads to Mars!’
Salem Al Marri, head of the UAE Astronaut Programme at MBRSC, sums up the discussion well.
“We explore space to improve life on earth. Everything we do today, even this [webinar] conversation would not have been possible without space exploration,” says the Emirati space expert, praising the role of the nation’s Rulers in promoting science.
He adds a clincher: “The first thing [Hazza Al] Mansouri told me when he returned [from space] is: ‘I have achieved Shaikh Zayed’s ambition’.”