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An Arab astronaut made history in space. Now his country has its sights on Mars

Mission Specialist Sultan Alneyadi of the United Arab Emirates, member of the SpaceX Dragon Crew-6 mission, gestures during the crew walkout from the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for Launch Complex 39A ahead of their liftoff at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 1.
Jim Watson
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AFP via Getty Images
Mission Specialist Sultan Alneyadi of the United Arab Emirates, member of the SpaceX Dragon Crew-6 mission, gestures during the crew walkout from the Neil A. Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building for Launch Complex 39A ahead of their liftoff at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on March 1.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The UAE is a small country with big ambitions. Possibly, nowhere is that clearer than in its space program, which has already sent two astronauts to space and has a satellite probing the atmosphere around Mars.

The country, a little over 50 years old, marked a milestone on Monday after Emirati astronaut Sultan Alneyadi splashed down to Earth in a SpaceX capsule following six months aboard the International Space Station. It marked the longest space mission by an Arab astronaut. He also became the first person from the Middle East to conduct a space walk outside the ISS.

In this photo provided by NASA, United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi gestures as he is helped out of a SpaceX capsule onboard a recovery ship after he and NASA astronauts Warren "Woody" Hoburg and Stephen Bowen and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast, Monday.
Joel Kowsky / NASA via AP
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NASA via AP
In this photo provided by NASA, United Arab Emirates astronaut Sultan Alneyadi gestures as he is helped out of a SpaceX capsule onboard a recovery ship after he and NASA astronauts Warren "Woody" Hoburg and Stephen Bowen and Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev landed in the Atlantic Ocean off the Florida coast, Monday.

The UAE's relatively nascent space program reflects the country's wider ambitions to secure a spot on the world stage alongside global powers like the United States and China, which have advanced space programs and cutting-edge observation satellites and technology.

Alneyadi, 42, was part of a four-person NASA Crew-6 mission that launched in March and returned to Earth after 186 days in space.

Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, NASA astronauts Warren "Woody" Hoburg and Stephen Bowen and UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi are seen inside the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX recovery ship Megan shortly after landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday.
Joel Kowsky / NASA via Getty Images
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NASA via Getty Images
Roscosmos cosmonaut Andrey Fedyaev, NASA astronauts Warren "Woody" Hoburg and Stephen Bowen and UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi are seen inside the SpaceX Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX recovery ship Megan shortly after landing in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday.

While he is not the first Arab astronaut to travel to space — that was Saudi Arabia's Prince Sultan bin Salman in the early 1990s — and is the second Emirati to do so, Alneyadi's time aboard the ISS highlights the Gulf state's regional edge in space exploration. Saudi Arabia is also revamping its space program in a bid to catch up with its smaller Gulf neighbor.

A five-minute-long exposure shows a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft launched on NASA's SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station, at Kennedy Space Center on March 2.
Joel Kowsky / NASA via Getty Images
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NASA via Getty Images
A five-minute-long exposure shows a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's Dragon spacecraft launched on NASA's SpaceX Crew-6 mission to the International Space Station, at Kennedy Space Center on March 2.

"It was really amazing, especially for my region," Alneyadi said in a video conference a few days before leaving the ISS. "I felt that I'm responsible, obligated to show what's happening aboard the station. I think it's a small boost towards spreading the enthusiasm in our region."

Moment of national pride

An attendee takes a photo of UAE astronauts Sultan Alneyadi (left) and Hazza Al Mansouri during a press conference held by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre on Feb. 2, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
/ Andrea DiCenzo for NPR
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Andrea DiCenzo for NPR
An attendee takes a photo of UAE astronauts Sultan Alneyadi (left) and Hazza Al Mansouri during a press conference held by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre on Feb. 2, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Born and raised in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, the father of six and longtime military engineer is being hailed a national hero in the UAE since his return to Earth.

The UAE's president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, referred to him as "my son" in a post congratulating him on his achievement. Dubai's ruler and the UAE's vice president, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, wrote that Alneyadi's journey shows "we are capable of contributing positively to humanity's scientific and civilized march."

Photos of the UAE astronaut corps on the wall of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The UAE's space sector has grown significantly over the past decade.
/ Andrea DiCenzo for NPR
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Andrea DiCenzo for NPR
Photos of the UAE astronaut corps on the wall of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The UAE's space sector has grown significantly over the past decade.

The UAE has a population of about 10 million, with only about a million of them Emirati citizens and the rest foreign workers. It has limited political freedoms — often drawing criticism from human rights groups — and is led by hereditary rulers from each of its seven emirates. But the rulers have placed a priority on space exploration, spending close to $6 billion on various industry projects to spur investments, boost the country's profile and give it a competitive technological edge.

Building a space program with help

The Dubai-based Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, established in 2006 with just five engineers, has grown to about 250 engineers and scientists. Its Hope Probe has been orbiting Mars since 2021, gathering new findings about the red planet's atmosphere.

The center grew by partnering with countries that have far greater experience in space and advanced studies, like the U.S., Russia, South Korea and others.

Hessa Almatroushi, science lead on the Emirates Mars Mission, told NPR in an interview earlier this year that she joined the program as a young electrical engineer. She was able to pivot into data analysis and scientific research with the help of U.S. experts. She says the center partnered with a range of universities, such as Northern Arizona and University of California, Berkeley.

"We were paired up with mentors," she said, adding her mentor was an expert at the University of Colorado Boulder who specializes in data analysis in the upper atmosphere of Mars. "We stayed in this mentorship program just until I became the science lead, and that was at the end of 2020."

To Mars and beyond

The UAE announced this year the Emirates Mission to the Asteroid Belt, a multiyear project that will create numerous private Emirati science and technology companies with the aim of exploring seven asteroids and training young Emiratis in deep space mission control.

Earlier this year, the UAE attempted to join an elite club of global powers that includes just the U.S., the then-Soviet Union, China and recently India in landing a rover on the moon. The joint mission with Japan's ispace lander failed, and the UAE immediately announced work on a new lunar rover.

UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi (right) greets a guest at a press conference held by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre on Feb. 2, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
/ Andrea DiCenzo for NPR
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Andrea DiCenzo for NPR
UAE astronaut Sultan Alneyadi (right) greets a guest at a press conference held by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre on Feb. 2, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

"Those types of things will help us hopefully in the future land on the surface of Mars and of course send humans to the surface of Mars," Director General of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre Salem Al Marri told NPR.

From space to social media

In the UAE's tightknit, tribal society, the excitement behind Alneyadi's return to Earth was visible on buildings and bridges that carried his picture or lit up for the occasion, and in the local press, which has been dominated by coverage of his mission.

Alneyadi's social media posts, in both English and Arabic, also drew attention during his time in space. His photos from aboard the ISS included views of Jerusalem and Damascus, the coastlines of Beirut and, of course, Dubai. He also sent Ramadan greetings from space with a shot of the crescent moon that marked the start of the Muslim holy month.

In another key moment, he was joined for several days in May aboard the ISS by two Saudi astronauts, Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Arab Muslim female astronaut to go to space.

Alneyadi, a Ph.D. holder in information technology, beat out thousands of candidates in the UAE, passing numerous physical and psychological tests to ensure he could withstand the taxing fitness and mental stress of being in space for many months. He then trained in Russia and the U.S. to become an astronaut.

In one of his final social media posts from space, Alneyadi wrote: "Space, this is not a goodbye. I will see you later, whether on a new mission to the ISS or a farther destination."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.