In January of 2015, I recall being in a boardroom with colleagues for an update meeting, as we all got adjusted into our seats, our manager at the time said something that resonates with me to this day. He said “If we do our jobs perfectly, it will not only be us nor our children that are impacted by the work we conduct today, but it will be our grandchildren who will benefit from it”.
These words became the lens that would affect that manner onto which my day-to-day tasks are viewed, and as I left that organisation, I do my best to ensure that the words echoed by my former manager are always in perspective.
That manager is Omran Sharaf, the Emirati engineer at the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), tasked by the UAE’s leadership to supervise the development of the Emirates Mars Mission (EMM) or also named Hope probe, on July of 2020 from Tanegashima, Japan, and its and launch and the arrival in Mars’ orbit ion February of 2021, coinciding with the UAE’s 50th anniversary as a nation.
In the UAE, we have been thinking extensively on how life with its various facets would look like post-covid19, and how we can play a role in positively contributing to a world after this pandemic. The EMM will be UAE’s first contribution to this “new” world by launching a probe on an interplanetary journey to Mars on schedule; it will be a first for the MENA region
However, this mission in particular, demonstrates a novel case study of applying modern Emirati style of management to an interplanetary mission.
As a space enthusiast and an overall fan of the space sector, I am fascinated with teams and their influence on each other; especially in the context of management and leadership styles needed to make a space exploration mission a success.
In general, space exploration missions tend to range on average from 10 to 12 years from idea to launch. However, in EMM’s case, it took 6 years and a brief study of EMM’s team structure may help shed light on perhaps how it was able to cut down the amount of the time needed for such a mission; in my opinion, it resulted in a unique team structure from a governance standpoint.
The mission’s lead, Omran Sharaf has seven deputies instead of the standard one or two. Each deputy leads an important component of the mission such as spacecraft development, launch segment, mission assurance, mission science, mission operations, and etc.
This structure gives deputies the freedom to make time-sensitive decisions when needed. This also provides a sense of continuity to the mission for the future.
Additionally, the UAE’s leadership has a major role in the success of the EMM mission, the mission’s team added the “Strategic Affairs” section, based on their instructions, which is a component that is rarely found in other space exploration missions around the world.
The strategic affairs sets the foundation needed to ensure that the impact of EMM lasts beyond the probe’s arrival in orbit around the red planet and that the various elements of society; schools and the wider public are aware of the mission’s objectives and the opportunities that such a mission brings to the UAE.
This section has since become an integral part of every mission developed by the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC).
In fact, the team structure of EMM ensures that this mission goes beyond its scientific objectives; becoming the first probe to holistically study the Martian atmosphere throughout a full Martian day (24 hrs and 40 min), and achieve the missions’ strategic goal of becoming the catalyst for the UAE’s space endeavours.
Another goal for the mission is to build home-grown leaders in a highly technical field with long term impact on our economic and knowledge infrastructure.
Moreover, an aspect that makes EMM unique is its partnership model that its team has created. To fully understand, and appreciate, the uniqueness of the EMM model, we need to compare it to the traditional partnership models for space exploration missions.
The traditional model is divided into the following steps:
1) A space agency contracts a large company such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin to build the skeleton and major structural components of the probe or rover
2) The company then subcontracts laboratories and research centers around the world, to build the scientific instruments that would go on the said probe or rover.
3) Once all components are built, they are then assembled and vigorously tested, and then launched with a launch-service provider.
In EMM’s case, the mission’s team decided to approach university laboratories and research centers; the EMM mission team decided to then work with Colorado University’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) in Boulder, Colorado.
This approach removed the middleman from the equation; which would be a large company such as Boeing, and enabled the team to be cost-efficient.
In addition, this approach allowed the mission team to leverage on LASP’s long history of building highly specialised scientific instruments while making use of MBRSC’s own experience of building larger structures such as probes and satellites (DubaiSat 1, DubaiSat 2, & KhalifaSat).
Moreover, because LASP is part of an educational institution, it is mandated to educate, and as such there are both American and Emirati counterparts learning from each other on almost all EMM components.
Furthermore, since some components of the mission are developed in the US, a number of Emirati scientists and engineers have been based abroad for a number of years, in order to maximise the learning and ensure that an Emirati contribution is always present throughout the development of the probe and its science instruments.
One of those engineers is Mohsen Al Awadhi, who spent almost 5 years in the US. Joining EMM as a mission system engineer, Mohsen has since been given more responsibilities in addition to his original role as a system engineer. He is now the mission’s risk manager, one of the team leads at the launch campaign, and has since obtained his master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Colorado University.
Leaders in the field
The EMM’s approach builds well-rounded leaders in this field, leaders who are not only able to adapt to living abroad and in a place with a different work culture but also able to make the most out of such learning experience.
Thus, this approach continues MBRSC’s 14 years of knowledge transfer tradition with all of its partners. But more importantly, all of the hard and soft skills that they have learnt throughout this mission, can enable these leaders to contribute to any and if not, all key sectors relating to the science and technology of the UAE.
There is no denying that 2020 has been a year filled with great challenges for humanity, from a collective and an individual perspective.
We saw how different nations acted with the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic, we witnessed the manner in which our lives and daily routines of those around us has been massively disrupted, and to many, a futuristic outlook may have been lost as we all focused on our bare necessities and immediate needs.
People around the world and in social media have been wondering, when will life go back to being normal? And this may be difficult for some, but there is no going back to how things were before, and we are now living in a new “normal”.
In the UAE, we have been thinking extensively on how life with its various facets would look like post-covid19, and how we can play a role in positively contributing to a world after this pandemic. The EMM will be UAE’s first contribution to this “new” world by launching a probe on an interplanetary journey to Mars on schedule; it will be a first for the MENA region.
A contribution will positively add to the global scientific community and discover new secrets hidden by the red planet’s atmosphere.
In addition to that, the management and leadership model developed by the mission’s leadership team, was able to build a new generation of leaders for the UAE’s scientific and technological community.
All team members had to endure numerous challenges to get the mission to where it needed to be, and in the process, they became the leaders they are today.
Finally, this mission will embody the hopes of a people for a future in which this region positively contributes to the advancement of humanity’s scientific and technological endeavours. With that in mind, I do look forward to the day my grandchildren reap the fruits of Hope; the EMM’s missions’ probe name.
Saeed Al Gergawi is the Director of Dubai Future Academy, Dubai Future Foundation