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Prince Sultan: 'Space mission a catalyst for region's technological drive'
[January 08, 2010]

Prince Sultan: 'Space mission a catalyst for region's technological drive'

Jan 09, 2010 (Arab News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Prince Sultan bin Salman, the first astronaut from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East to go into space, has said his mission in space proved to be the catalyst for the region's drive toward science and technology.

In his keynote address at the Global Space Technology Forum in Abu Dhabi recently the prince said his trip to space in June 1985 helped to promote interest in space travel and the sciences to Arab and Muslims.

Much of the technological development in our modern world was either developed with a direct connection to space programs, or as a derivative of it, or even inspired by it. From medicine to modern aviation technology and even engineering breakthroughs, many of the scientific and technical innovations that make our lives better today are a result of space research and the ongoing quest to explore the distant planets, Prince Sultan said.

Most countries in our region have in fact embraced the potential of space technology, and the great impact it can play in their development, he said, adding Saudi Arabia is a prime example.

Saudi Arabia has been a true believer in the importance of space to national development, the prince emphasized in his address. It was a principal founder of ArabSat, and its largest shareholder, and has promoted the widespread use of satellite technology in the region. Saudi Arabia had at the time the most advanced communications system in the region, and today it is one of the biggest markets for communications technology.

Saudi Arabia has also invested heavily in scientific development and education.

"When a scientific team was invited to participate with experiments aboard the STS-51G mission back in 1985, our universities were ready and eager, and many of them were already involved in some form of space related research," said Prince Sultan.

Saudi Arabia continues to invest heavily in scientific, technological and human development, he said, adding that over 80,000 Saudis are on scholarships and studying abroad in all corners of the world, and 24 public and eight private universities are being built (on top of the existing 19) serving almost 800,000 students.

Over 25 percent of the national budget is allocated to transform Kingdom's lower and higher education to bring it up to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century and beyond. Most of the universities and research centers have already aligned themselves with some of the great institutions of the world, and have focused their programs toward scientific research and technological learning and development.

Saudi Arabia has also invested heavily in the education of the gifted and youth science clubs and science centers and has committed and funded an ambitious national plan for the development of science and technology. An ambitious space program was launched as a direct outcome from the space mission.

"Today there are four new generation ArabSat satellites orbiting our earth, providing valuable services to the region," he said. "Ten satellites have already been launched and two more will be in orbit by 2012. Can you imagine our world without satellites? Imagine no satellite TV and radio, no space imaging for weather and agriculture, or searching for water and natural resources and protecting the environment! Imagine telephone communications and the Internet if we had not developed satellite technologies!" He said 2009 was very special for the Kingdom, adding that the inauguration of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), was a turning point for Saudi and regional higher education and a great step toward placing science and technology in the forefront of our educational and research priorities.

"We live in a much different world today than when we first flew on board the space shuttle in 1985," he said. "At that time, space was the preserve of countries of the First World. There were few astronauts and cosmonauts from the Third World, let alone from Muslim or Arab countries. There were no national space programs or serious university research programs in most Third World countries. There were very few Muslim or Arab space scientists in this area, and most of them worked or studied in Western or Soviet institutions. There was very little public knowledge or interest in space, and there were no events like this one held in this part of the world." Globalization and the Internet were unfamiliar terms to most, the prince added, not to speak of instant messaging or gadgets like Blackberry phones glued to the hands of millions.

"In 1985, people were unable to surf through hundreds of TV channels, or travel easily across our planet for commerce and tourism. Cultural interaction was for the privileged few. Scientific knowledge, sharing and access to databases was nothing like we enjoy today," he added. "With all these incredible developments, and more to come in the near future, InshaAllah, how then can we talk about ourselves as a region? We are in fact already a part of an interdependent world and anything we do to develop our regions has to impact and be impacted by global developments, this includes scientific developments related to space." "With this in mind," the prince continued, "we really have to begin thinking of ourselves in this region as contributors to the future of humanity as our great Arab and Muslims ancestors have done. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah made this point so eloquently in his KAUST inauguration speech in September: 'When the history of this planet is written, it will reflect human achievement and contributions toward all humanity, not one region or race.' It is indeed important to benefit from space related science and technology for our regional development, but it's equally critical to participate in shaping the future of humanity through knowledge building and scientific cooperation. As we do all live in one planet, we must seize the forces of globalization to build a new world befitting for all future generations to live and prosper. I was very privileged to have had such moments when I flew in 1985. These memories may seem distant when scaled by human time standards, but somehow, they are still fresh in my mind and are etched in my soul as if they have only happened five minutes ago. I reflect on one of those moments when asked by a member of the press, during our last days of flight, about my thoughts when seeing earth from space for the first time. I remember replying as follows: The first day or so, we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were only aware of one earth," he concluded.

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