Natural resource problems, political instability, and funding issues, make active space programs a challenge in much of the Muslim World. In some countries, the lack of access to large bodies of water or other uninhabited space and other necessary resources, make space exploration the subject of fantasy. In others, social support, political desire, or financial capacity are absent.
By Christina Boyes
Do the Resources Exist?
“In order to launch satellites into space, countries must have access to a large body of water or uninhabited desert,” says Dr. Redouane Al Fakir, a Moroccan-born Canadian astrophysicist. This prevents polar launch rockets, from falling into inhabited areas, in the event of launch failure. Social support for space programs must be present, and the financial capacity to build such programs is also required.
As Dr. Eugene Lim, a Malaysian-born lecturer at King’s College in the Theoretical Particle Physics & Cosmology group reminded me in a recent interview, a space program needs only three things: “A literate public and political will…[and] all the resources you can buy.” According to Dr. Lim, many top astrophysicists are Iranian, and Malaysian accomplishments include the astronomer, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor’s flight.
Other countries in the Muslim World are taking steps towards the creation of space programs – in an unexpected way. Today’s space launches require very little in terms of natural resources. Environmentally-friendly fuels, lightweight shuttles, and enhanced technology, have put satellite launches into the hands of a growing number of countries. Manned missions are also increasing in simplicity.
What Does Muslim Space Exploration Look Like?
Dr. Redouane is a leader in Muslim space exploration. He has been working on the creation of a spaceport – with missions focused exclusively on peaceful and nonmilitary uses – in Vancouver, Canada. The spaceport seeks backing by Saudi, Qatari, and Emirati investors, and will also be home to the first space launches from Canada. Dr. Redouane hopes to raise $100 million USD for its construction, with the funds coming from private donors in these countries.
The spaceport’s name is the Salaam Spaceport for Peace. According to Dr. Redouane, its existence is a step towards Muslims reclaiming their historical position, as leading astronomers worldwide, and towards the creation of an Islamic culture for the 21st century. Discussing his work on the spaceport, he stated:
“Theories are easy…We need to develop a vision for what we want Islamic culture to be in the 21st century, and to put it in practice. The spaceport is a monument to this [Islamic] culture – a culture that embraces our rich history in astronomy, math, and science, and is relevant and in context to the 21st century. This spaceport will be the first nonmilitary port [in the world]. Its use will be exclusively for educational, environmental, and peaceful purposes. We want to look at the world as a global community. The safety of the whole planet will be the mission of this spaceport…The Salaam Spaceport will be built for the service of all humanity.”
The design and construction of launch sites, rockets, shuttles, and necessary support equipment, requires extensive scientific knowledge. Iran and India are home to space programs that rank in the global top ten, and India has helped Canada with space launches in the past. Iran’s January 28, 2013 launch, of a monkey into space, followed by a planned second launch in December of 2014, was groundbreaking, as the last step before manned missions.
Iran plans to build a space station in the near future, and has also worked with Russia for space launches. Although the country now has a spaceport of its own, Iran’s collaborations with Russia in 2005 may show other countries in the Muslim World a way to reach for the stars, as may Dr. Redouane’s Canadian spaceport program.
Hurdles to Overcome
Several Muslim World countries have active satellites and space agencies, including Algeria, Malaysia, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, and Pakistan. Indonesia has astronauts currently training for active space exploration. The country has launched satellites and taken many key steps towards the launch of a shuttle. More than 1/5th of the active space programs are based in Muslim World countries. That said, the European Space Agency spends $5.16 billion USD, on space programs annually.
Space programs in the Arab Muslim World are largely absent. The two most advanced, United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s EIAST and Saudi Arabia’s KACST, are fairly young. Geographic problems and the public call for financial expenditure on freshwater vs. space studies surround space travel in the Arab Muslim World.
The UAE is emerging as a space science leader in the region, with plans for a Mars mission, a $1 billion USD spaceport, and a strong push for a pan-Arab space agency. The UAE’s agency has already launched two satellites, Dubai Sat 1 and Dubai Sat 2, and plans to launch the first Arab-made satellite, Khalifa Sat, in 2017.
Criticism for Muslim World space programs comes from within, as well as from external sources. Like Dr. Omar al Emam of the UAE, some are worried about external interpretations of these programs. Others are concerned about the diversion of resources from mitigating natural disasters in Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan where flooding and earthquakes cost billions annually, or from investment in food and water security in the Arab Penninsula.
Despite his concerns, however, Dr. Emam argues that Muslim World space initiatives are important, due to the information they provide. He is not, however, enthusiastic about manned missions or the use of astronauts.
The UAE’s ambitious goals of establishing a Mars mission within seven years, as well as Muslim participation in the European-led Mars One private settlement initiative, faced a fatwa by the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE), against permanent human settlements on Mars. The issue of facing Mecca for prayer has also been raised by Muslim astronauts, and was discussed in the Western media. There have, however, been many Muslim astronauts over the years, including one, whose mission took place over Ramadan. The discussion of Islam’s religious reaction to space travel, is outside the scope of this article, and represents an area of healthy debate at present.
Programs like Dr. Redouane’s spaceport and international collaborations, represent ways to overcome geographic and resource pressure induced hurdles to space travel in the Muslim World, while providing space education, and in turn growing public support for space initiatives. They provide the Muslim World with a chance to reconnect with its roots as a mathematically strong and exploration-rooted culture, that is fascinated with the stars.
Christina Boyes is a professional writer who splits time living in Mexico and the United States. Her primary interests include seismology, geophysics, green technologies, climate change, water, and the intersection of these areas with geopolitics