Astronauts from Saudi Arabia will return to space for the betterment of humanity, pioneering Prince Sultan bin Salman said on the 37th anniversary of his historic flight.
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In an extensive interview with Al Arabiya English, Prince Sultan discussed the future of Saudi spaceflight, reflected on his life-changing journey to space and shared his admiration for the new generation of Arab astronauts.
“Saudi Arabia is going back to space, of course. We have to go back to space, but we have to go back to space with the perspective of not only bringing things back, but pushing the boundaries, pushing technology to help us here on Earth,” Prince Sultan told Al on Friday. Arabiya English.
King Salman’s son made history on June 17, 1985 when he became the first Arab, the first Muslim, and the first member of a royal family to leave Earth’s orbit by departing aboard the Discovery space shuttle.
Crew of the Discovery shuttle STS-G51. From left to right Patrick Baudry, Shannon Lucid, Steven Nagel, Sultan bin Salman. Bottom row from left to right John Fabian, Daniel Brandenstein and John Creighton. (Delivered)
He joined a crew of five Americans and a Frenchman on the run to put three satellites into orbit — including the ARABSAT-1B for which he was a payload specialist.
In 2018, he was appointed to lead the newly formed Saudi Space Commission, which aims to accelerate the Kingdom’s extra-planetary ambitions.
At the time, he said he told King Salman it would take him three years to set up the organization and draw up a plan for Saudi spaceflight.
In 2021, at the end of those three years, he was appointed special adviser to the King and stopped working for the commission.
“It’s all built up and the master plan has been presented to the government, and now of course there’s a master plan review,” he said.
“With the financially dynamic financial situation with oil prices and budget, and the government’s commitment to huge projects, that also puts the Space Commission in perspective.”
While the Saudi Twitter and Snapchat spheres buzzed with praise for his achievements, it was “a really normal day” for him.
“I’m at work, it’s Friday, so I’m spending time with family and kids and so on, but it’s really something to look back on and think about. Fantastic memories.”
A key moment of the anniversary was a tweet from Emirati astronaut Hazzaa al-Mansouri, who said he was “remembered by the magnitude of this achievement”, and felt “[obligated] to pursue this legacy to achieve the goals of the future.”
“It was a beautiful tweet,” said Prince Sultan. He is in regular contact with the 38-year-old, who became the first Emirates in space on September 25, 2019.
“I called him the first time they were training,” Prince Sultan recalls. “He kept telling me . . . that he watched our mission when he was in fourth grade, and it impressed him.”
“I have to tell you that today’s tweet, which he sent me, made my whole day. It’s Friday, I was relaxing here and it was absolutely overwhelming that he would remember.”
The Discovery shuttle departs the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 17, 1985 at 7:33 AM local time. (Included)
NASA’s STS-51-G Discovery shuttle mission took off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on June 17, 1985 at 7:33 a.m. local time.
The launch date fell on the 29th day of Ramadan, leaving Prince Sultan with the dilemma of fasting during intensive pre-flight training and during the mission.
Rather than choose to delay his fast and make up for the days after that, he decided to fast during the mission.
Last year, Prince Sultan postponed his fast because he helped prepare for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He found it difficult to fast alone in Saudi Arabia when he made up for every day of Ramadan that he missed.
So he decided to fast without gravity instead. In a now-famous exchange with Saudi Arabia’s highest religious authority, Prince Sultan joked about negotiating the requirements of his fast.
“I spoke to the mufti in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Bin Baz, and jokingly said, ‘We are going to see 16 sunsets and sunrises every day. Can I do Ramadan in two days?’”
‘And he said ‘no, you can’t.’ When I came back to Saudi I had a good session with him and we laughed and talked.”
Just before the launch, he received a message that his mother was performing Tawaf, in a circle around the Kaaba in Mecca. The thought occurred to him that while his mother was orbiting the Kaaba, he would soon be orbiting the planet as well.
Prince sultan reads the Quran in space aboard the Discovery shuttle. (Delivered)
Among the personal belongings taken aboard the flight were a Quran and a set of prayer beads. On the fifth day of the mission, Prince Sultan had managed to complete an entire recitation of the holy book in space.
By looking out the windows of the shuttle and seeing the planet from such a great height, Prince Sultan gained a new perspective on life, which he says he carries to this day.
‘Imagine if you lived in a small town and there is a big mountain, you have never been on that mountain in all your life. And then you go into the mountain and look down. Can you imagine?
“This is exactly the same effect. It’s looking at where we live from a different perspective.”
“It’s really amazing. It looks so small and so fragile that I don’t know why we humans don’t remind ourselves all the time… Sometimes we miss the point,” he noted.
“We were in school and we were absolutely drilled in our heads with those artificial borders between countries. You go into space and you realize they don’t exist like in an atlas or geography books.”
He continued: “This perspective needs to be seen by politicians, people who make decisions.”
“Look at what we’re doing now in 2022. Can you imagine what’s happening around the world today in terms of wars, in terms of bombing, killing and so on? It’s like we don’t have a view of history.”
Prince Sultan prays in microgravity aboard the Discovery shuttle. (Delivered)
Prince Sultan fasted for the first two days in space before Shawwal 1 fell on day three, the end of Ramadan.
He was subjected to experiments to study the effects of microgravity on the human body, and he even took a sample of Saudi oil in orbit and mixed it with water to see how microgravity could affect the separation process.
The Saudi astronaut developed a severe headache because the low gravity caused fluids in his body to rise and separate his vertebrae, causing severe back pain.
But during all this, he decided not to take painkillers or sedatives as recommended, because he wanted to observe the full experience of space travel, both positive and negative.
As the sun rises and sets sixteen times a day from the shuttle’s perspective, music awoke the crew after eight hours of sleep a day, with a different song chosen by each astronaut (or their families) for different mornings.
Prince Sultan’s choice was Bo’ad walla Grayebeen (near or far) from the Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu.
On the sixth day of the flight, Prince Sultan received a call from King Fahd. It was another first, as at the time he was the only non-American to speak to a head of state from space.
King Fahd (right) speaks with Prince Sultan during his space flight. (Delivered)
He also spoke to his father, King Salman, who was then governor of Riyadh.
The call was broadcast at home on Jeddah TV using a US satellite broadcast.
ARABSAT successfully launched into orbit on the second day, 27 hours after takeoff, and the crew returned to Earth on June 24 at 9:11 a.m. Florida time.
After less than two weeks in Houston to readjust to Earth conditions, he headed back home to Saudi Arabia.
On board a flight to Taif, he recalls looking out the window of the Boeing 707 and seeing two Royal Saudi Air Force fighter jets escorting the plane.
“For me, that was one of the highlights of my life,” he recalls.
He remembers getting a phone call from King Fahd before the plane landed. The king wanted the team to wear their spacesuits when exiting the plane. Prince Sultan, however, had a different idea.
“I’m trying to convince them to let us wear Saudi national clothes. How stupid of me to convince King Fahd, who is the greatest ghost of the time! So we put on the blue suit and he was right.”
Prince Sultan is welcomed home by his mother, the late Princess Sultana Al Suairi, at al-Hawiyya Airport in Taif. (Delivered)
“When we arrived in Taif, I looked out the window of the plane and saw King Fahd coming to the reception.”
“I said, if you take away everything that’s happened in my life and give me that moment, it would be good for me. To see King Fahd come to greet the team.”
Prince Sultan said there were an estimated half a million people on the streets of Taif. And the celebrations continued in Asir, Riyadh, and throughout the kingdom.
“At some point I got to the point where I said, ‘If I believe this, I’d walk around like the most arrogant person in the whole world because I’ll think of myself as a genius… But then I realized that people that weren’t celebrating us, they were celebrating themselves…”
“We celebrated Saudi Arabia, we celebrated the human side of Saudi Arabia. I mean we were building roads, building airports, [industrial cities] Jubail and Yanbu, building schools, cities exploding in Saudi Arabia, the expansion taking place in Saudi Arabia. But really nobody paid attention to human development.”
Thinking back to the 37th anniversary of the momentous mission, Prince Sultan recalls the intensity of those seven days that shaped the rest of his life.
“People say Sultan, does it feel like a dream? It doesn’t. It felt like the true reality. Sometimes parts of the life we live every day start to feel like a dream. But something like that was very intense.”
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