"That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind." With these few words, American astronaut Neil Armstrong - the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969 - sparked humanity's dream in conquering the final frontier - space. A number of Kuwaitis have started to wonder whether it was feasible to have a national space program and they dared to contemplate the possibility of turning this dream into a reality.
This renewed interest has stemmed from the UAE's attempts to actualize its dream in an efficient regional space program through the Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC) that was founded in 2006 and the UAE Space Agency, established in 2014. The Emirates are planning to send an unmanned orbiter to Mars by 2021.
Establishing a space agency/program is not a fantasy, it is the way of the future, which will bring numerous economic and scientific benefits, Assistant Professor at the Physics Department of Kuwait University (KU) Dr. Hala Al-Jassar said during an interview with Kuwait News Agency (KUNA).
While attending the recently held Abu Dhabi Space Congress, Dr. Al-Jassar said that she was amazed and intrigued by one of the participants' contributions to the event. The participant laid out that the requirements of a successful space program, which must include strong leadership, a sizable budget, available talents, and thorough training programs, said the academic.
"We have the budget, the talents, the expertize, and outstanding graduates from the best universities," said Dr. Al-Jassar who pointed out that the lack of clear leadership was one of the main challenges for the establishment of a space agency.
Even with the lack of a unified leadership, Kuwait University - supported by the Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Science (KFAS) - succeeded in joining the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) initiative launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), she said.
Dr. Al-Jassar revealed that one of the many benefits of the NASA SMAP project was to provide accurate weather forecasts as well as improved monitoring of droughts and floods amongst other things.
She added that Kuwait University provided monthly data to NASA SMAP to understand the planet's ecology, noting that Kuwait was the only Arab partner in the program.
"When we start a space program, we will not be starting from scratch," Dr. Al-Jassar affirmed, revealing that many Kuwaiti entities such as the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) is cooperating with NASA on a Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) project, another space related endeavor.
Though things appeared to be on the positive side according to Dr. Al-Jassar's statements, perhaps the most pressing question might be whether it was necessary for Kuwait to pursue a space program and the answer for that question might lie within the purpose of such venture.
Having a sense of purpose is necessary and that could never been clearer than the tense space race that existed several decades ago between the US and the former Soviet Union (Russia) in which supremacy over world affairs was the ultimate goal.
Providing his input on this matter, Program Manager at Kuwait Foundation for Advancement of Science (KFAS) Dr. Bassam A. Al-Feeli stressed that the most important thing for a Kuwaiti space program was "to bring people together to create a critical mass... Enough people to push it [the idea of a space agency] forward." "It has to be a national priority," affirmed Dr. Al-Feeli, adding that the proposed space program should come with a sense of purpose just like in the case of the UAE, which launched its program to show the world that it was among the most advance and developed countries.
There are other issues more urgent to the leadership and people of Kuwait such as the future of energy resources as well as matters like housing, said Dr. Bassam Al-Feeli who affirmed that the KFAS - as a funding entity - would provide its full support once there was a body willing to execute plans for space exploration.
KFAS supported KU on the NASA SMAP project, which is a small step towards the grand goal, said Dr. Al-Feeli, affirming that understanding reality was as important as setting the ship on course.
Dr. Al-Feeli, furthermore, explained that educating the younger generation on the values of space science and exploration was the key to the future. The idea of a 'space camp' is one of the ways to drive the curiosity of young children, he said, revealing that a small group of youngsters from Kuwait spent ten days of summer at the Belgium-based Euro Space Center learning about space and living the experience of astronauts.
Dr. Al-Feeli's point on preparing the next generation for the possibility of space exploration is a valid one and as the Arabic proverb says, "What is learned in youth is carved in stone." Displaying the vigor of youth and talent for science, student Hamad Abdulwahab Al-Hendi, a physics major at Kuwait University, expressed - with full conviction - the possibility of a space program being developed in Kuwait through the passion and determination of the right people, as well as creating the right conditions for this goal.
Al-Hendi, who is in his final years in colleague, worked with his mentor Dr. Hala Al-Jassar to develop several interesting projects, such as a drone that is used in aerial photography, a robotic fish that measures sea levels and salinity, as well as other devices that could be used in various scientific fields including space exploration.
"I have taught myself to use a 3D printer after realizing that NASA sent materials to its astronauts using this method," said Al-Hendi who actually managed to 3D-print a miniature model of NASA's Curiosity Rover to show the efficiency of such a tool.
Al-Hendi indicated that he was driven by an interest and willingness to learn, adding that having a national space program will have an immense positive impact on Kuwaiti youth, allowing them to utilize their true potential for the welfare of their country.
"Kuwait has an abundancy of intellectuals, but what we need, as a country, is more people asking 'what is the theory of relativity?' Rather than knowing that Albert Einstein was behind it," stressed Al-Hendi.
Al-Hendi's conviction reflects hope in the future and despite the reality of things, it seems that passion and determination by a dedicated group of people and scientists will one day allow a Kuwaiti astronaut to carry out a spacewalk or, even better, set a foot in a newly discovered alien world.