arab astronaut


Prince Sultan’s voyage to space — in the space shuttle Discovery — wa s not the first manifestation of the Arab world’s new revived interest in space. Four months earlier, on February 8, a great Ariane rock had soared into the skies over French Guiana. The rocket carried Arabsat-A, the Arab world’s first communications satellite and part of a space network that by early 1986 had begun to transform communications throughout the 22 Arab League countries whose leaders and scientists had joined forces to create the network.

But Prince Sultan, by participating in Mission 51-G, and by conducting Arab-organized experiments, was doing something more than reaching space. He was also celebrating Arab mastery of the key scientific disciplines that launched and brought the Discovery back: mathematics and astronomy, the “exact” sciences which the Muslim world preserved, enlarged and passed on to the West. And in carrying out in-cabin experiments assigned to him by Saudi Arab scientists, he was also evoking memories of Islamic science in the medieval period.

Over the centuries, it is true, science in the Arab world has declined, but Prince Sultan’s experiments suggest the efforts to catch up again now being made in such countries as Saudi Arabia. Prepared by a team of scientists led by Dr. Abdallah Dadbagh of the Research Institute of the University of Petroleum and Minerals (UPM) in Dhahran, they included lunar and earth observations, the recording of data on oil and water in space that might provide helpful information on pollution and oil recovery, and an ionized gas experiment de-signed by another member. of the Saudi royal family. Prince Turki ibn Sa’ud ibn Muhammad Al Sa’ud proposed the ionized gas experiment as part of his Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford University, and Prince Sultan recorded it through the front windows of the orbiter, using television cameras housed in the bay of the shuttle for study and analysis by Arab scientists. The prince also used a specially modified Hasselblad 500 EL/M camera to photograph swaths of the Arabian Peninsula for comparison with previous remote sensing images in efforts to develop a groundwater program and to track the movement of sand across the peninsula.

To conduct the oil-water experiment, Prince Sultan had to follow a detailed list of 23 specific steps in order to record reactions when oil and water were mixed in zero-gravity — this time using a 35-mm camera with a zoom lens. When comparisons of the results were made with the findings of similar experiments on earth, they provided a measure of helpful information to research into methods of combatting oil spills and oil recovery.

Prince Sultan also made a first-time-ever observation that excited the entire Muslim world: he sighted — and photographed ---the lunar crescent of the new moon through the shuttle window; this sighting, on earth, marks the official end of Ramadan, the fasting period for all Muslims, and the start of the joyful ‘Id al Fitr holiday.

All the experiments were the responsibility of a 16-man Arabsat Scientific Experiments Team under Dr. Dabbagh. Working together, these scientists outlined the experiments, trained Prince Sultan and his backup, Major ‘Abd al-Mohsin Hammad al-Bassam, in the proper procedures and subsequently analyzed the findings in the kingdom’s state-of-the-art laboratories.

Interestingly, these laboratories — particularly those at the Research Institute of UPM — already had the sophisticated research equipment needed to analyze the data returned from Mission 51-C. One example is the Image Processing Center (IPC) of the Research Institute. In operation since 1982, this center, the most sophisticated facility in the Arab world, can process and analyze remote sensing data from aircraft, space shuttles, and other satellites in orbit.

In such Research Institute projects as tracking oil spills, mineral and water exploration, agricultural monitoring, documenting urban growth and controlling sand movement, the IPC has proven invaluable.

It was logical, therefore, that the team of scientists who managed the Mission 51-C experiments included members from four divisions at the UPM Research Institute: Energy Resources , Economics and Industrial Research, Petroleum and Gas Technology and Geology and Minerals.

Also included were a member of the medical faculty at King Faisal University in Dammam and the chief geologist at the kingdom’s Ministry for Mineral Resources in Jiddah. Various ministries and other clients expressed interest in the enhanced photographs taken from space, another reason why UPM’s Research Institute was well qualified to handle the project: it has experience in client-funded research.

For Arab scientists, with their proud memories of the Golden Age and the House of Wisdom, the opportunity of working at the leading edge of science is an exciting challenge.

“The Arab world,” said Prince Sultan, “is at a turning point. We have gone through the phases of oil, money and early technological development. The new generation is looking forward to joining the rest of the world by obtaining the most important things in that turnaround: opportunity and education. Together they are the keys that open the door for our future. My space flight is just a crack in that door.” The experiments, of course, were only part of the mission. The prince’s first job was to supervise the launching of Arabsat-B — the second Arab communications satellite. He also participated in a French-organized experiment to measure the effects of weightlessness on the human body; gave a guided tour of the space shuttle’s interior in Arabic, which was beamed back to Arab television viewers on earth, and took part in a press conference in space.

A 28-year-old graduate of the University of Denver — with a degree in mass communications — and a trained pilot, Prince Sultan was picked after a search of several months; the Arabsat organization was permitted to select a payload specialist to travel aboard Discovery and Saudi Arabia won the slot.

Though payload specialists are not involved in the launch or operation of the space- shuttle, their training schedule is still intense: 114 hours of what the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) calls “habit-ability” training, or — in layman’s language — learning to adapt to the routines of daily life in a space shuttle plus learning to handle general house-keeping chores in the confines of the crew’s compartment — prompting Prince Sultan to describe the voyage as “a high-tech camping trip.”

The training paid off. On the second day of the flight, Arabsat-B was successfully

deployed in space 35,900 kilometers above the equator, (22,300 miles ) and in 1986 took over the functions of Arabsat-A.

ON EARTH AT THAT TIME, excitement had reached staggering propor-tions in the Arabian Gulf region . Between June 17 and June 24, 1985, hours of live telecasting from the Cape Canaveral launch pad and Houston’s Mission Control — plus daily Washington updates — kept millions of Arabs glued to their television sets. According to Worldwide Television News (WTN), an estimated 10 million people in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia were tuned in. WTN, incidentally, itself almost at once benefited from the Arabsat satellites; during the 1986 crisis in South Yemen, WIN was able to pick up coverage via Arabsat and re-transmit it to the world.

Arab astronaut

Interest was by no means limited to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Lured by the fact that a tall, darkly handsome jet pilot was to be the first Muslim in space, millions in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America eagerly followed the progress of Mission 51-C on television and in print. This was true even in the United States where space flights had become almost routine; because a prince was on board, the flight of the Discovery created a wave of fresh interest in space travel that would, sadly, continue through the tragic in-flight explosion of the Challenger in January, 1986. And even then Prince Sultan and Major al-Bassam, now a lieutenant-colonel, played roles; at the request of King Fahd, the two Saudi astronauts, who had met and trained with the seven astronauts killed in the explosion, flew back to Houston to personally convey the kingdom’s condolences to the bereaved families.

During the Discovery flight, in fact, the U.S. media repeatedly focused on the prince. ABC-Television, calling the prince the “real celebrity” of the flight, showed a film of him talking from space to King Fahd in Riyadh, and Sandy Gilmore of CBS, USA Today, America’s nationwide daily newspaper, and the prestigious New York Times all featured the prince’s activities in space.

Important international personalities echoed the TV commentators and newspaper columnists . In London, Jonathan Aitken, a British member of parliament, said the prince’s involvement in the space program was a “historical step” forward for Saudi Arabia. In New York, Clovis Maksoud, Arab League ambassador to the United Nations, said: The flight is a symbol of the resilience of our people and the determination of the Arab people to cope with the latest scientific challenges.” And in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dr. Farouk El-Baz, the first Arab to participate in the American Space Program predicted that it would “cause a revolution in the thinking of the Arab youth......”

EVEN WHEN THE PRINCE RETURNED TO EARTH THE EXCITMENT CONTINUED. In Saudi Arabia itself, the prince, a nephew of King Fahd and a grandson of King ‘Abd al-’Aziz ibn Sa’ud, founder of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, received what the Associated Press described as a “hero’s welcome across the kingdom”: a seemingly endless series of “processions and motorcades, flying flags and festive decorations, singing and dancing, poetry reading, gifts, awards and commendations,’ as an embassy newsletter in Washington, D.C., described it. His welcome, indeed, was not unlike the ticker-tape receptions accorded Lindbergh on his return to the U.S. after he flew the Atlantic nearly 60 years before.

At the airport in Taif, Prince Sultan was met by his uncle, the king, was awarded the Order of King ‘Abd al-’Aziz and was promoted to major in the Royal Air Force. To mark the occasion, the government issued two new stamps. One, a 20-halala stamp, showed the space shuttle, a satellite, a minaret and the official emblem of the Saudi government. The other, a 115-halala stamp, showed the shuttle on one side and a NASA emblem on the other, with the names of all the astronauts that went up in the Discovery.

In late 1985, Prince Sultan, setting off on an international good will tour, was also inducted — with five other astronauts, including France’s astronaut on Mission 51-C, Patrick Baudry — into the prestigious Legion of Honor. Established by Napoleon, the legion’s famous medal is the highest honor that France can bestow, and in a special gesture for the occasion it was awarded to Prince Sultan and the other astronauts by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius personally. In a colorful ceremony, with television lights glinting off the swords of an elegant French Honor Cuard, Prime Minister Fabius also appealed for peace in space. “If there is one domain where international cooperation should exist,” he said, “it’s space, because space is the future and we want it to be a peaceful one for mankind.”

B ecoming an astronaut, and getting into space, Prince Sultan told an Aramco World reporter in Paris, was tremendously important — especially to young people in Saudi Arabia. “1 think it showed them that space, like the rest of high technology, is not the exclusive hunting ground of the West and that — literally — not even the sky is the limit any more.”

From Paris, Prince Sultan went on to visit Cannes, Tours, Bordeaux and Toulouse — heart of the French aerospace industry —before flying off to the United States for another round of appearances and interviews during a four-city, five-day good will tour, much of it arranged by the National Association of Arab Americans


In Boston, Prince Sultan delivered a moving address focused on the links between the United States and the Islamic world. “When I went up, 1...... represented 800 (million) to a billion Muslims, and I..... took all of them with me to space in an American space ship,” he said.

From Boston, Prince Sultan flew to National Airport in Washington, D.C. and later met President Reagan in the Roosevelt Room in the White House; he gave the president an astrolabe, an ancient navigational instrument, some T-shirts commemorating Mission 51-C and a flight jacket with the Saudi flag sewn on it.

Prince Sultan’s achievements were a triumph for him personally, of course, but also for Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as a whole. As one writer said on seeing Prince Sultan talking to King Fahd from space, the people of Saudi Arabia suddenly realized that the kingdom had been developing, in the prince’s words, “at 2000 miles an hour.”

T o     Prince Sultan, however, the flight into space, the medals and the honors were just a prelude. Now, he said, the job is to utilize the system he helped launch. Overall responsibility for that system is in the hands of the Arab Satellite Communications Organization. Arabsat, as the organization as well as its satellites are known, was set up by the Arab League in 1976 and is headquartered in Saudi Arabia.

The Arabsat satellites weigh approximately 1,200 kilograms (2,640 pounds), and have two solar-drive assemblies with a wing span of 20.7 meters (68 feet) and 20,000 solar cells to provide energy. Medium size, multi-mission satellites, they are the first of a new generation of regional telecommunications satellites, capable of relaying signals to remote regions of the Arab world previously unreachable by existing international satellites. These signals are picked up by small ground antennae in rural and desert areas, and in metropolitan areas by ground stations with large antennae: 11 meters in diameter (36 feet). Such equipment can handle heavy trunk-route telephone traffic and can originate and receive television transmissions.

Other urban ground stations, employing antennae of the same diameter, can serve smaller cities. In addition, mobile ground stations using antennae 1.6 meters in diameter (five feet) can be used for emergency communications and for community television, what is called “down-link reception” can be provided by small, receive- only ground stations with antennae three meters in diameter (10 feet).

Arabsat’s ground-control network consisting of a satellite control center (SCC), where orbit-injection operations are carried out — monitors satellites and controls them throughout their lifetime, while the primary telemetry. telecommand and control ground station (TTC) maintains permanent contact with both the SCC, via micro-wave links, and with the satellite via large transmitting and receiving antennae. Both stations are located in the Riyadh area, with a secondary TTC in Tunis, this station can temporarily replace the facilities in Riyadh.

A Already the Arabsat organization has eyed what Abdiil al, Shakrou , secretary general of the Arab States Broadcasting Union (ASBU) , called a “quantum leap .....” in intra-Arab communications.. By 1986 more than half of the Arab world’s national TV networks were linked via Arabsat and officials predicted that all all Arab League states — 22 —would be connected by the end of 1986.

During 1985, in fact, 14 countries -- Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya and Mauritania, Morocco, North Yemen, Oman, Qatar, Tunis, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — were exchanging almost-daily news items and once-weekly feature programs via Arabsat. And on October 1, 1985 as editors in Tunis were preparing the first-ever Arahsat news package — Israeli jets bombed the Palestine liberation Organization (PL0) headquarters in Tunis. That was the first item to go out on the Arabsa t news exchange. Thanks to satellite transmissions, Arab countries can also send news to the West. Dubai, in fact, started sending its daily television newscast to London by lntelsat in 1986; the transmission was being picked up by a cable network and fed into hotels in London’s West End for Arab guests.

Weekly feature program exchanges began on November 11 1985 Entitled “An Arab Evening” and lasting two hours in all, they included a full-length feature ~ from one of the participating national IV net-works plus an educational program prepared by the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific organization (ALECSO). The first programs aired so far have included prize-winning plays from Iraq and Qatar, footage of the annual Jerash Festival in Jordan , a film on Tunisian folklore and — a particularly well-received program — the impressions of a Syrian doctor, now living in the United States, on her return to the place where she grew up.

Arab broadcasting executives reported in 1986 that there was tremendous audience interest in the news items and feature programs being exchanged. Significantly, countries at the extremities of Arabsat’s reach — who in the past rarely got a glimpse of their brothers at the other end of the Arab world — reported the strongest audience interest. For although Arab stations have exchanged important televised news items in the past — via such international communications satellites as Intelsat — and have exchanged feature programs when feasible, the post-Arabsat period was the first time Arabs were able to conduct exchanges on such a regular, and prolific, basis. It was the first time, for example, that Maurit-ania, on North Africa’s Atlantic coast, had been able to transmit to — and receive from — the Arabian Gulf.

T his new flexibility was dramatically demonstrated in Muscat in November, 1985, during a summit meeting there of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — an economic and defense organization linking Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and, later, on Oman’s national day. Because there is limited interest in the GCC in the West, and because space on fntelsat — a global satellite system on which the Arabs previously relied — was restricted, international TV coverage of the GCC was confined to one or two very brief news items daily, and coverage of Oman’s national day ceremonies — which took place at the same time as the summit meeting in Geneva between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was even less. Thus Arab audiences, would normally have seen only what was transmitted internationally, or on specially arranged bi-lateral transmissions via international satellite to individual Arab states. In 1985, however, Oman TV was able to provide extensive coverage of both events in Muscat to all Arab states via an Arabsat satellite — regardless of what was happening internationally. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” an Oman TV producer told an Ararnco World reporter as he monitored incoming coverage of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit transmitted by Intelsat and, simultaneously, an exciting soccer match between two Gulf teams relayed by Arabs. Before the satellites went up, Arab broadcasters would only have received one — the summit. As it was, later that day TV audiences in Oman saw both.

I n the early 1980’s, long before the first Arabsat satellites went up, the Gulf states had already made a new commitment to radio and television broadcasting. The existing networks and organizations, at least in the countries by the Arabian Gulf, had, in fact, charted a responsible course for television’s growth as early as the 1970’s.

At that time, Gulf state ministers of information began regularly to discuss all aspects of the electronic media, and two organizations financed by Gulf governments were set up to foster broadcasting. One, Gulfvision, based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was set up in 1977 to coordinate television activities by organizing news exchanges, program competitions, and special studies.

The other organization was the Arabian Gulf States Joint Program Production Institution. Headquartered in Kuwait, this group’s main task is production of such programs for the region as the Arab version of “Sesame Street,” lftah Ya Sirnsirn Other programs focus exclusively on educational themes, dramatizing, for instance, such culturally sensitive topics as the adjustment of a non-Arab wife to local conditions, or the problems of a Gulf resident in the West.

In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, indigenous television programming expanded so swiftly that the trend in 1986 was away from European and American programming — and even away from films and videotaped programs from non-Gulf Arab countries. One reason is that many contemporary Western programs are unacceptable in Muslim countries. Another is the belief that many of these productions do not explore problems relevant to the Gulf — or do not use Arabic common to the area, a serious matter in a region where language is revered.

TV’s technical system for five Gulf countries is the Phase Alternating Line, or “PAL,” system invented in Germany. Although Saudi Arabia uses the French Sequential and Memory (SECAM) color system internally, the kingdom transmits in PAL color to neighboring countries.

Radio broadcasting too, has become more sophisticated in terms of both technical quality and programming, and every country had begun to present programs of both Western and Arab music, drama, public affairs and news. In most cases, Gulf states also transmit programs in both Arabic and foreign languages via short wave for listeners in other parts of the world. (Conversely, there is widespread international radio listening among Gulf residents: 44 international broadcasters transmit to the Arab world in Arabic.)

By 1986, television in Kuwait — one of the forerunners of television in the Arabian Gulf — had reached an advanced state of technical and artistic quality and the new Saudi Arabian television complex in Riyadh, completed in 1982, is probably one of the most spacious and modern in the world, with state-of-the-art equipment unmatched in most Western countries.

Arab news agencies are also well placed now—after a decade of intensive development — to make good use of Arabsat satellites to further reduce the influence of international news agencies in the Arab world.

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