The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, following the iconic exemplar of the United Arab Emirates for space exploration, is about to send its first ever woman astronaut, Rayyanah Barnawi, for a ten-day mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The Kingdom would thus become the first ever Muslim and Arab nation to send a woman astronaut to space and Barnawi would have the honour to be the first ever Muslim astronaut to venture as a mission specialist in space. She would also be accompanied by Ali Al-Qarni another Saudi astronaut and the programme would be executed by a by private space corporation, Axiom Space, as a part of its Ax-2 mission. Saudi Arabia, in fact, has followed the United Arab Emirates that made history by becoming the first Arab nation to launch a citizen into space in 2019 as its Astronaut Hazzaa al-Mansoori visited the International Space Station (ISS) for an eight days trip.
In 2020, it launched its first interplanetary space mission, the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) to Mars. Meant to glean more information about the Mar’s atmosphere, it was the culmination of a project conceived in 2014 by a team of Emirati and American engineers that worked across two continents for its completion. Its launching from a USA launch pad even defied a global covid pandemic crisis. It reached the Mars in February 2021and the success synchronised with the 50 anniversary of the UAE, with the laurels to become the first Arab and the fifth country to reach the red planet. It took seven months to traverse 306 million miles and its Hope Probe is still hopping the Mars.
Its latest mission known as the Rashid Rover, meant to land on the Moon, sent on December, 2022, has already entered the lunar trajectory and is scheduled to land on the lunar surface by the end of next month. The success of Rashid that means a ‘person pursuing the right path’, would make the Emirates not merely the fourth nation to land on the Moon following the United States, Soviet Union and China but also the first ever Arab and Muslim country to meet the Moon. Even one of its first ever woman astronaut Nora Al Matrosshi, a mechanical engineer from Sharja, has been selected for its next mission to the moon.
Space for its spectacular promise of a rare thrill and romance of exploration, new vast, virgin resources and human settlements to skip the worsening climate and resource constraints on Earth, has stirred a great interest in flights for research and exploration. But the Muslim countries, for their mindset, problems of poverty, primitive thought, political strife, lack of stability and governance, lack of modern science, tech and innovative expertise, economic and investment constraints, have avoided their space ventures. The UAE, however, imbued with a global perception and economic affluence, established its Space Agency in 2014.
Saudi Arabia, in contrast, had not been that active in space prior to the ascent of Prince Muhammad Salman, still historically Barnawi’s flight may not be taken as its first space visit as even in 1985, it sent its royal Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, an air force pilot on a mission organised and managed by the USA. Its own space programme, however, started four years later than the UAE but it sent an astronaut to space in 2022 to pioneer yet another part of Prince Salman’s Vision 2030 agenda, for economic diversification.
Rayyanah Barnawi, likewise would be the first Muslim woman astronaut on a space mission being initiated, funded and organised by a pristine Muslim country. Coming to a broader roll of the visitors to the space as cosmonauts, astronauts, payloads and other special research and visit expertise, two other Muslim women have already been to the space as a part of 75 women who have this honour. Anoushe Ansari, an American citizen, born in Iran, for instance, actually may be taken to be the first ever Muslim woman to be in space albeit as a tourist. She flew to the ISS by the Russian Soyuz TMA on September 18, 2006.
Anoushe, an electrical and computing graduate and with MS in electrical engineering, cofounded a telecommunication company with her husband and brother-in-law and sold it for about half a billion in 2006. She has also been quite enthusiastic to promote and optimise the innovative space travel facilities and make generous contribution to the related organizations. A $10million award by them to the first ever private company capable to launch a reusable crewed spacecraft into space within two weeks was quite exceptional.
Sara Sabry, an Egyptian woman, a medical and biomedical engineer, was selected from seven thousand applicants from 160 countries. She flew on August 4, 1922, on a suborbital mission operated by the Blue Origin Mission NS 22. Blue Origin is a privately owned American aerospace manufacturing and suborbital services company conducting such flights. Her main focus was space for Humanity Citizens’ programme or sifting the Overview aspects meant to examine the Earth as a single entity as it appears suspended like a ball or big organism in space, surpassing the boundaries that divide it for the Earthlings.
Their exemplar, the success of the first Saudi woman on her mission, followed by Nora, the UAE astronaut, would evidently spur some other richer Muslim nations to emulate their strides and taking more Muslim men and women into space.