The Space Race in the Muslim World is becoming increasingly controversial, with Iran being one of the major players.
By Alfonso Lucifredi
Sepideh and space exploration in Muslim Faith
Sepideh Hushyar is a young woman from Iran. She loves Astronomy and space, and spends her nights exploring the universe through the lenses of her telescope. Her greatest ambition was to become an astronaut. Her dream was fulfilled when her role model, Anousheh Ansari, the first self-funded woman to fly to the International Space Station, helped her achieve that goal. In 2013, Danish director Berit Madsen filmed the award-winning documentary Sepideh – Reaching for the Stars, narrating the story of this young woman, who fell in love with the stars.
This is just one example: increasingly more people in the Muslim world, are eager to explore outer space, following the example of the 9 Muslims, who have ventured out into space so far , and many Muslim nations are now involved in space These include nations such as, Kazakhstan, which inherited the Baikonur Cosmodrome since the USSR times, Pakistan, the first Muslim nation to launch a satellite in 1990, UAE, Azerbaijan and Algeria, with active satellites in the Earth’s orbit, among others. But the most active Muslim nation in this field, is Iran. Now the Iranian Space Agency, founded only ten years ago, has reached its preset goals and is looking forward to sending a manned mission to space, in few years.
The Iranian Space Agency, or ISA, achieved the first orbital launch just five years after its establishment, in 2009. From then on, Iran accomplished several other goals and at the moment, is ranked tenth in the list of countries in the world, which spend the most in space exploration . On January 2013, Iranian national television announced, that a rhesus monkey was sent into space and returned safely on a capsule named Pishgam. On December 2013, Iran launched another monkey named Fargam, on a suborbital flight that lasted around 15 minutes before retrieving the animal back to Earth, safe . Now, the ISA is planning to send the first manned space expedition soon after 2020.
Controversies and politics
It is not unusual for the Muslim world, to have its own share of controversies. The facet of space, holds no different a nature. One example is the project Mars One, often dubbed as the suicide mission, which has seen several Muslims expressing interest to participate. With a plethora of ethical controversies implied, including being forbidden by Islamic laws, this mission has one of the biggest controversial values in the history of space exploration in the Muslim world.
More recently, another argument has stemmed a lot of debate: the issue of praying in space, which is hindered owing to an ambiguity regarding the direction of the Qibla, as well as owing to the duration of a single day in space being upto 90 minutes only. For this particular situation, a group of scholars then created a set of guidelines, for Muslim astronauts .
But most of the controversies are not based on religious issues. The nature of several controversies is largely political as well. With several major Muslim countries in silent cold wars with other nations, such as Pakistan and India for example, space exploration is seen as a threatening developmental possibility in the political arena. As space exploration involves the development of long-range missiles, that could ultimately lead to an improvement in military technologies, political tensions may magnify as a consequence of these factors.
Out of all the Muslim countries, Iran has the maximum amount of space related controversies: some of the goals achieved by ISA do not seem clear. Firstly, though the Pishgam mission was shown on national media, no timing or location of the launch were specified, and for many observers the still images broadcasted on national TV, with the monkey before and after the launch, were showing two different animals. Furthermore, some animal rights activists protested against using monkeys as experimental bait . For Iran, many of the issues also stimulate political tensions: the US and its allies have expressed their concern regarding Iran’s space exploration technology, as it could lead to long-range missile development, possibly armed with nuclear weapons. This, however, has been denied by the Iranian authorities, declaring that their nuclear program has only civil applications, mainly in the energy production field .
Hopefully, the improvement of diplomatic relations between Iran and the Western countries, will lead to more scientific cooperation. An excellent example can be found, in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, back in 1975, which was the first joint US – USSR space mission, that started a new Era of cooperation in space exploration.
Let us also not forget, that research by Muslim countries, is becoming more and more integral on an international basis. As reported by Roberto Battiston, president of the Italian Space Agency, some projects could offer great opportunities, also for foreign countries, which could lend their expertise to these relatively-new space agencies . Also Robert Zubrin, Mars Society president, stated, that UAE could really be a pioneer on the Red Planet exploration, and while visiting UAE’s new research facilities, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, enjoyed the amazing developments in research .
Scientific solutions to Space Problems in the Muslim World
Eventually, some of the Muslim nations, like the UAE, which is now one of the leaders in the race to Mars, are on the brink of a new Era of amazing results in space exploration. Others, such as Iran, will have to face political problems to improve their goals, solving tensions with other countries, in order to prove to the world, that their missions have only scientific purposes. Technology is already there, what is still needed is experience in some cases: cooperation with other nations as well as the the expertise of foreigner scientists and engineers, will lead to greater and greater accomplishments, but to get it, politicians will have to play an important role, supporting peace and good relations with the other countries.
The author is a Nature scientist and a Science journalist based in Genova, Italy.
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*The images are courtesy the writer