UAE’s spaceflight shortcut to making history

Mars. Credit: NASA

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

In an hour or so, the UAE’s Hope probe, currently en route to Mars, will beam a signal to Earth about whether it managed to get into orbit around the red planet. Thanks to the Indian experience of the same feat, achieved in 2014, we all know what this moment must be like to the people of the UAE… I think.

I’m also seeing a lot of quotes doing the rounds on Twitter and also in the news including messages of Arab pride, that this moment is a success for the Arab world irrespective of whether the Hope probe successfully completes orbital capture. While I’m sure a lot of writers will unpack the meaning of this moment in the days to come – including the fact that the UAE’s riches in particular are erected on a desperate workforce that migrated to the Gulf in search of better fortunes, and still labours in the shadows with none of the labour rights that the country’s full-time citizens enjoy – I hope some of them will be able to focus on two things: the connection between making history and spaceflight itself, and between UAE’s age and ambitions.

On the first count, the complexity of spaceflight seems to offer a shortcut, of sorts, to history-making today: perfecting a rocket launch, building a functional satellite capable of lasting many months in space, deploying a suite of instruments that can semi-autonomously investigate the properties of another world seems to be able to guarantee a significant amount of notability.

This is not tautological: there are many enterprises today that demand a considerable amount of resources, focus and skill to execute – a vaccination drive that doesn’t abuse its healthcare workers, for example, or even building a big bridge over the sea without injuring any of the workers involved in its construction, but neither compares to spaceflight in the latter’s ability to capture the public imagination. I suspect strongly that the crises currently facing humankind are becoming an increasingly larger part of this perception – both in terms of spaceflight being a sort of epitome of the human ability to innovate humankind’s way out of sophisticated problems as well as by stoking fantasies of escape – as might be the fact that spacefaring is a preoccupation of the billionaire class, and the capitalism world-system seems to be predicating the solutions to many of the world’s more wicked problems on the collective benevolence of these people.

In this sense, small but rich countries might as well be primed to buy their way into history – in this moment, today – using the spaceflight route, after doing the same thing in years past by benefitting from the exploitation of their natural resources, of outsourced labour and by offering anti-accountable financial services that help keep the global capitalist machine running.

Second, many Emiratis seem intent to make known the UAE’s relative youth – “some of our parents were born before the UAE became a country,” one social media post said – vis-à-vis the Hope probe’s impending orbital capture. It’s worth noting here that three prominent American universities were involved in putting the probe together. The Emirati monarchy may see reason to be proud here, considering the sort of internationalism they’ve been fond of promoting in Dubai, but the celebrations rooted in the UAE’s age (50 years) would be misplaced in turn. If anything, the UAE may demonstrate that in some particular enterprises of the 21st century, achieving great things needn’t have anything to do with national longevity – and in fact may benefit more from a political leadership able to do what it pleases.

Featured image credit: NASA.