Astronauts from Saudi Arabia will return to space for the betterment of mankind, the pioneering Prince Sultan bin Salman said on the 37th anniversary of his historic flight.
Speaking with Al Arabiya English in a wide-ranging interview, Prince Sultan discussed the future of Saudi spaceflight, reflected on his life-changing voyage into space, and shared his admiration for the new generation of Arab astronauts.
“Saudi Arabia, of course, is going back to space. We have to go back to space, but we have to go back to space with the perspective of not just bringing things back, but pushing the envelope, pushing technology to help us here on Earth,” Prince Sultan told Al Arabiya English on Friday.
The son of King Salman made history on June 17, 1985 when he became the first Arab, first Muslim, and first member of a royal family to leave earth’s orbit by embarking on a mission aboard the Discovery space shuttle.
He joined a crew of five Americans and one Frenchman on the flight to deliver 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, looking to accelerate the Kingdom’s extra-planetary ambitions.
At the time, he said that he told King Salman he would need three years to set up the organization and put together a plan for Saudi space travel.
In 2021, at the conclusion of those three years, he was appointed as a special advisor to the King and ceased working with the commission.
“It’s all built up and the masterplan has been proposed to the government, and now there of course is a review of the masterplan,” he said.
“With the financially dynamic financial situation with the oil prices, and the budget, and the commitment of the government to huge projects, that also puts the Space Commission in perspective.”
While the Saudi Twitter and Snapchat spheres on Friday were buzzing with praise for his achievements, for him it was “a normal day, really.”
“I’m working, it’s Friday so I’m spending time with family and kids and so on, but it is really something to look back and reflect on. Fantastic memories.”
One significant moment from the anniversary was a tweet from Emirati astronaut Hazzaa al-Mansouri, who said he was “reminded of the magnitude of this achievement,” and felt “[obligated] to pursue this legacy to meet the goals of future.”
“It was a beautiful tweet,” Prince Sultan said. He is in regular contact with the 38-year-old, who on September 25, 2019, became the first Emirati in space.
“I called him the first time when they were training,” Prince Sultan recollected. “He kept telling me… that he was looking at our mission when he was in fourth grade, and it impressed him.”
“I have to tell you, his tweet today, which he sent to me, made my whole day. It’s Friday, I was relaxing here, and it absolutely was overwhelming that he would remember.”
Ramadan in space
NASA’s STS-51-G Discovery shuttle mission took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 7.33am local time on June 17, 1985.
The date of the launch fell on the 29th day of Ramadan, meaning that Prince Sultan was faced with the dilemma of having to fast during the intensive training before the flight and during the mission.
Rather than choosing to delay his fast and make up the days afterward, he decided to fast during the mission.
The previous year, Prince Sultan delayed his fast as he was helping with preparations for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He found it difficult to fast in Saudi Arabia alone afterwards when making up for each day of Ramadan he missed.
Hence, he decided to fast in zero gravity instead. In a now-famous exchange with Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious authority, Prince Sultan quipped about negotiating the requirements of his fast.
“I spoke to the mufti in Saudi, Sheikh Bin Baz, and jokingly I said: ‘We’re 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 launch, he was passed a message that his mother was performing Tawaf, circling the Kaaba in Mecca. The thought crossed his mind that as his mother was orbiting the Kaaba, he would soon be orbiting the planet.
Among the personal possessions taken aboard the flight were a Quran and a set of prayer beads. By the fifth day of the mission, Prince Sultan had managed to complete a whole recitation of the holy book in space.
Looking out the windows of the shuttle and seeing the planet from such a great height gave Prince Sultan a new perspective on life, that he said he carries to this day.
“Imagine if you lived in a small town and there’s a big mountain, you’ve never been to that mountain all your life. And then you go into the mountain and look down. Can you imagine that?
“This is exactly the same effect. It’s the view of where we live from a different perspective.”
“It’s really amazing. It looks so small and so fragile that I don’t know why us humans don’t remind ourselves all the time… Sometimes we miss the point,” he observed.
“We were in school, and we absolutely got drilled in our heads those artificial borders between countries. You go to space, and you realize they don’t exist as they do in an atlas or geography books.”
He went on to say: “This perspective should be seen by politicians, people who make decisions.”
“Look at what we are doing now in 2022. Can you imagine what’s happening today around the world in terms of wars, in terms of bombing, killing and so on? It’s like we have no hindsight of history.”
Prince Sultan fasted for the first two days he was in space, before Shawwal 1 fell on day three, marking the end of Ramadan.
He was subjected to experiments studying the effects of microgravity on the human body, and he even took a sample of Saudi oil into orbit, mixing it with water to observe how microgravity might affect the separation process.
The Saudi astronaut suffered severe headaches as the low gravity caused fluids to rise within his body, and separated his spinal vertebrae causing intense back pain.
But throughout all this, he decided not to take painkillers or sedatives as recommended, as he wanted to observe the full experience of space travel, positive and negative.
As the sun rises and sets sixteen times a day from the perspective of the shuttle, the crew were awakened by music after eight hours of sleep per day, with a different song picked by each astronaut (or their families) for different mornings.
Prince Sultan’s choice was Saudi singer Mohammed Abdu’s Bo’ad walla Grayebeen (Near or Far).
On the sixth day of the flight, Prince Sultan received a phone call from King Fahd. It was another first – as he was the only non-American at that point to have spoken to a head of state from space.
He also spoke to his father King Salman, who was then the Governor of Riyadh.
The call was broadcast back home on Jeddah TV with the help of an American satellite transmission.
ARABSAT was launched into orbit successfully 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 re-adapt to conditions on Earth, he set off back home to Saudi Arabia.
‘They were celebrating themselves’
On board a flight to Taif, he remembers looking out of the window of the Boeing 707 to see two Royal Saudi Air Force fighter jets escorting the plane.
“To me that was one of the highlight moments of my life,” he recollected.
He remembers receiving a phone call from King Fahd before the plane landed. The King wanted the team to wear their space suits when exiting the plane. Prince Sultan, however, had another idea.
“I’m trying to convince them to let us wear Saudi national clothes. How stupid of me to try and convince King Fahd, who is the most big mind of that age! So we put on the blue suit, and he was right.”
“When we got to Taif I looked out the window of the plane and I saw King Fahd coming to the reception.”
“I said, if you take away everything that happened in my life and give me that moment, that would be fine for me. To see King Fahd coming to greet the team.”
Prince Sultan said that an estimated half a million people were out in the streets of Taif. And the celebrations continued in Asir, Riyadh, and across the Kingdom.
“At one point I came to the point where I said, ‘if I believe this, I would walk around like the most arrogant person in the whole world because I’ll think of myself as a genius… But then I realized people were not celebrating us, they were celebrating themselves…”
“We were celebrating Saudi Arabia, we were celebrating the human side of Saudi Arabia. I mean, we were building roads, building airports, [industrial cities] Jubail and Yanbu, building schools, cities are exploding in Saudi, the expansion that’s happening in Saudi. But really nobody paid attention to the human development.”
Thinking back again on the 37th anniversary of the momentous mission, Prince Sultan remembers the intensity of those seven days that came to shape the rest of his life.
“People say Sultan, does it feel like a dream? It doesn’t. It felt like true reality. Sometimes parts of life that we live every day start feeling like a dream. But something like that was very intense.”