El-Baz did face, like many Arabs at the time, a lot of discrimination. It was not easy for him, but he is obviously very bright and he worked extremely hard. He became an important person in the study of the lunar surface and in the training o the Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon.
Koren: It seems like that was the case with Sultan bin Salman, the first Saudi astronaut, too. As Salman prepared to fly on the Space Shuttle, NASA brought in people from Aramco, an oil company that had an office nearby in Houston, to give NASA astronauts a one-day crash course in Saudi culture. Why did NASA officials think that was necessary?
Determann: At the time, the average American, and that includes perhaps the average American astronaut, would have very little idea about Saudi Arabia. There were these orientalist fantasies, these exotic ideas, that people had about the Middle East. When people heard about Saudi Arabia, they would have perhaps been reminded of Lawrence of Arabia, of camels and sand, of harems and sultans and princes and sheikhs. A lot of Americans didn’t quite know what to make of a Saudi astronaut. What kind of person would that be, and how do you integrate him as a crew member on a space shuttle? So perhaps people in NASA were worried about cultural misunderstandings.
It turned out that actually, this Saudi prince, as many Saudi elites at that time, was already quite Americanized. He had studied in America. He actually knew American culture much better than French astronauts, and perhaps even knew the English language better. But somehow, NASA administrators had less worries about cultural misunderstandings with the French astronauts.
Koren: You mention a ruling—a fatwa—made by Islamic scholars in 2014 that prohibited a one-way mission to Mars if the chances of death were significant. “Participation on this journey would be punished the same as suicide in the Hereafter.” How do some of the more traditional values of Islam, which views taking one’s own life as sinful, coexist with human space exploration, which can be deadly?
Determann: Modern bioethics—the kind of ethics that deals with human life—is still evolving in the Arab world. Some figures in the Muslim world, like the people who issued that fatwa, would have a big problem with suicide, or possible suicide. Of course, that’s true of any religious group that puts a special emphasis on the value of human life. That’s not something that’s specific to Islam.
Koren: And it hasn’t necessarily stopped Muslim nations from pursuing Mars missions.
Determann: In the case of the United Arab Emirates, national, political, and economic ambitions have trumped these Islamic concerns about Mars missions. The United Arab Emirates has perhaps the most ambitious missions in the region planned for Mars. There’s a Mars mission that is to be launched in 2020, to send an orbiter that would study the Martian atmosphere. The orbiter is supposed to reach Mars in 2021, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the founding of the state of the United Arab Emirates.
There’s also the Mars 2117 project, where the United Arab Emirates actually plans to establish a whole city on Mars in 100 years’ time. Obviously, that’s a project that is very early in its development. And if you want to establish a city on Mars, that might mean that you lose a few lives in the process in one way or another. There might be objections by Muslim scholars toward those kinds of projects. But these ambitions are there.