What kind of odds would you have placed in 2014 against a small country, with no space agency, that gained its independence not quite half a century ago, being able today to launch an interplanetary spacecraft aimed at both advancing the study of Mars and making history? The odds would probably have been, well, astronomical.
Here we are, six years on, and I sit here writing this column. The blast-off, from Tanegashimi Space Center, the largest rocket launcher in Japan, of the Emirati craft, dubbed Hope, or Amal in Arabi, an orbiter destined to hurtle through space on a seven-month long journey to the Red Planet is now scheduled on Friday.
Once it arrives there, Hope will produce the first map yet taken of the Martian atmosphere, which it will spend two earth years studying.
All in all, a bold step for a small, young nation.
Not only did mission personnel need to overcome the expected engineering challenges and to acquaint themselves with past knowledge gathered by the international community of Mars scientists, but also, experts have noted, needed to be equally adept at dealing with how a Mars-bound craft should survive the extreme forces of the lift-off and employ sophisticated propulsion and navigation systems to get into the Martian orbit
From the beginning, the hurdles facing Amal, one suspects, must have been daunting. Not only did mission personnel need to overcome the expected engineering challenges and to acquaint themselves with past knowledge gathered by the international community of Mars scientists, but also, experts have noted, needed to be equally adept at dealing with how a Mars-bound craft should survive the extreme forces of the lift-off and employ sophisticated propulsion and navigation systems to get into the Martian orbit.
But why Hope? Why reach for the stars?
No, it’s not, as George Leigh Mallory responded when asked why he planned to climb to the top of Mount Everest, “Because it’s there!”. (This famous climbing phrase has often erroneously been attributed to Edmund Hillary, who had inherited his culture’s penchant to “conquer space”, “tame nature” and “kill time”, and who in 1953, when asked the question after his return from the mountaintop, instead typically said “We’ve knocked the [expletive] off”.)
No, I say, scientists don’t mindlessly reach for the stars merely “because they are there”. Rather, as the project director of the UAE mission, Omran Sharaf, put it, “Reaching Mars is not the main objective here, it is about strengthening our knowledge economy by making it more innovative, creative and competitive”.
It may be trite to say — but worth saying nevertheless — that advances in human civilisation were made possible by explorers, those intellectually inquisitive individuals who, in their quests, discovered new ideas, and those restless souls who discovered new worlds, folks who knew all along that there’s something wondrous out there to be discovered that would give an added pitch to our will-to-meaning, a human drive anchored in the progression of our “knowledge economy”.
And without an expansive knowledge economy, we cannot enter into active cognisance of reality, indeed even into active possession of consciousness.
Emiratis are, of course, a part of and heir to the same cultural, theological and social archetype that defines the community of peoples inhabiting the Arab world.
Explorers of the word and world
Save for that puncture in the dialectic following the Mongolian sacking of Baghdad in 1258 and the collapse of their last civilizational stronghold in Andalus in 1492, these peoples, since antiquity, were ardent explorers of word and world.
Phoenician voyagers, for example, used their sturdy vessels to reach Britain, and their descendants, the Carthagenians, built a new and powerful civilisation in the West Coast of North Africa.
And Arabs ventured forth from their Peninsula and went on to found a multinational, multi-cultural and multi-racial commonwealth whose intellectual effusions enriched the sum total of human knowledge.
Perhaps what the UAE, morphing from a desert nation in 1971 to a global hub today, intends to do by reaching for the stars is to take up where their forebears had left off.
And, besides, Mars may not be a good place to buy a piece of real estate on which to build one’s dream home, but many writers and poets, including John Noble Wilford, once the New York Times science reporter, have rhapsodised about how the Red Planet, seen with the naked eye on a clear night, had always tugged at the human imagination like no other planet, drawing us to the shimmering redness of its presence in our solar system
Amal is a small machine that aligns with the size of a motor vehicle, but it’s also a big dream that aligns with the human spirit’s need to constantly thrust itself beyond its fixed meaning.
Poetic musings aside, that spirit has always called out to man, ever since humans claimed for themselves a pivot of self-consciousness, “You cannot take the sky and its wondrous mysteries away from me”.
I hear a divine sound resounding around the call. Do you?
— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.
[Update: The UAE’s Hope Probe Mission to Mars has been postponed for a second time, it was announced on Wednesday morning. The initial launch date was meant to be on July 15 but was shifted to July 17 due to bad weather in Japan, where the launch is set to take place.]