#Syria: the beating heart of the Arab world. 🇸🇾 🤍
Here is a view I clicked of Damascus, the oldest continuously inhabited capital in human history with its seven gates and home to the Umayyad Mosque, Barada River, and Mount Qasioun.
Greetings to Syria and its wonderful people. pic.twitter.com/bdQVhcCmYM
— Sultan AlNeyadi (@Astro_Alneyadi) August 1, 2023
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An Arab astronaut made history in space. Now his country has its sights on Mars
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The UAE is a small country with big ambitions. Possibly, nowhere is that clearer than in its space program, which has already sent two astronauts to space and has a satellite probing the atmosphere around Mars.
The country, a little over 50 years old, marked a milestone on Monday after Emirati astronaut Sultan Alneyadi splashed down to Earth in a SpaceX capsule following six months aboard the International Space Station. It marked the longest space mission by an Arab astronaut. He also became the first person from the Middle East to conduct a space walk outside the ISS.
The UAE's relatively nascent space program reflects the country's wider ambitions to secure a spot on the world stage alongside global powers like the United States and China, which have advanced space programs and cutting-edge observation satellites and technology.
Alneyadi, 42, was part of a four-person NASA Crew-6 mission that launched in March and returned to Earth after 186 days in space.
While he is not the first Arab astronaut to travel to space — that was Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman in the early 1990s — and is the second Emirati to do so, Alneyadi's time aboard the ISS highlights the Gulf state's regional edge in space exploration. Saudi Arabia is also revamping its space program in a bid to catch up with its smaller Gulf neighbor.
"It was really amazing, especially for my region," Alneyadi said in a video conference a few days before leaving the ISS. "I felt that I'm responsible, obligated to show what's happening aboard the station. I think it's a small boost towards spreading the enthusiasm in our region."
Moment of national pride
Born and raised in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, the father of six and longtime military engineer is being hailed a national hero in the UAE since his return to Earth.
The UAE's president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, referred to him as "my son" in a post congratulating him on his achievement. Dubai's ruler and the UAE's vice president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, wrote that Alneyadi's journey shows "we are capable of contributing positively to humanity's scientific and civilized march."
The UAE has a population of about 10 million, with only about a million of them Emirati citizens and the rest foreign workers. It has limited political freedoms — often drawing criticism from human rights groups — and is led by hereditary rulers from each of its seven emirates. But the rulers have placed a priority on space exploration, spending close to $6 billion on various industry projects to spur investments, boost the country's profile and give it a competitive technological edge.
Building a space program with help
The Dubai-based Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, established in 2006 with just five engineers, has grown to about 250 engineers and scientists. Its Hope Probe has been orbiting Mars since 2021, gathering new findings about the red planet's atmosphere.
The center grew by partnering with countries that have far greater experience in space and advanced studies, like the U.S., Russia, South Korea and others.
Hessa Almatroushi, science lead on the Emirates Mars Mission, told NPR in an interview earlier this year that she joined the program as a young electrical engineer. She was able to pivot into data analysis and scientific research with the help of U.S. experts. She says the center partnered with a range of universities, such as Northern Arizona and University of California, Berkeley.
"We were paired up with mentors," she said, adding her mentor was an expert at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in data analysis in the upper atmosphere of Mars. "We stayed in this mentorship program just until I became the science lead, and that was at the end of 2020."
To Mars and beyond
The UAE announced this year the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, a multiyear project that will create numerous private Emirati science and technology companies with the aim of exploring seven asteroids and training young Emiratis in deep space mission control.
Earlier this year, the UAE attempted to join an elite club of global powers that includes just the U.S., the then-Soviet Union, China and recently India in landing a rover on the moon. The joint mission with Japan's ispace lander failed, and the UAE immediately announced work on a new lunar rover.
"Those types of things will help us hopefully in the future land on the surface of Mars and of course send humans to the surface of Mars," Director General of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre Salem Al Marri told NPR.
From space to social media
In the UAE's tightknit, tribal society, the excitement behind Alneyadi's return to Earth was visible on buildings and bridges that carried his picture or lit up for the occasion, and in the local press, which has been dominated by coverage of his mission.
Alneyadi's social media posts, in both English and Arabic, also drew attention during his time in space. His photos from aboard the ISS included views of Jerusalem and Damascus, the coastlines of Beirut and, of course, Dubai. He also sent Ramadan greetings from space with a shot of the crescent moon that marked the start of the Muslim holy month.
In another key moment, he was joined for several days in May aboard the ISS by two Saudi astronauts, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Arab Muslim female astronaut to go to space.
Alneyadi, a Ph.D. holder in information technology, beat out thousands of candidates in the UAE, passing numerous physical and psychological tests to ensure he could withstand the taxing fitness and mental stress of being in space for many months. He then trained in Russia and the U.S. to become an astronaut.
In one of his final social media posts from space, Alneyadi wrote: "Space, this is not a goodbye. I will see you later, whether on a new mission to the ISS or a farther destination."
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