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Volume 37, Number 1January/February 1986

In This Issue

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A Prince in Space

Written by John Lawton and Patricia Moody
Additional photographs by National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Burnett H. Moody

From the time that the roar of rocket engines rumbled across the lagoons of Florida's Atlantic coast to the almost flawless touchdown at Edwards Air Base in California, Mission 51-G was what one American space agency official called "one of the most successful missions" in the space program. "It was a fantastic flight," said Shuttle Director Jesse W. Moore, "One hundred per cent of the objectives were accomplished. I take my hat off to the crew." The crew in fact was special - it included astronauts of three nations, including Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia, the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of royalty in space.

Prince Sultan, French scientist Patrick Baudry, and Americans Daniel Brandenstein, commander; John Creighton, pilot; John Fabian, mission specialist, Steven Nagel, the 100th American in space, and Shannon Lucid, the sixth woman in space, worked hard for Moore's praise. They launched three communications satellites - including one for the Arab Satellite Communications organization (Arabsat) - deployed and retrieved a scientific platform to probe the Milky Way, and their space ship served as the target for a laser in the first "Star Wars" space shuttle test.

In addition, Prince Sultan carried out a series of in-cabin experiments designed by Saudi scientists, talked to his uncle, King Fahd, by telephone from space, gave a guided tour of the space shuttle's interior in Arabic, which was beamed back to Arab television viewers on earth, and also found time to pray and to read the Koran.

There were some bad moments: when lightning hit the launch pad the night before blast-off, and when instruments indicated that one of the Arab satellite's long solar wings had extended before launch. The Cape Canaveral storm caused no damage, however, and after a perfect liftoff on June 17, the winged spacecraft roared into orbit through a near-cloudless Florida sky, cheered and applauded by about 230 Arab guests of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), including 29 Saudi princes - four of them brothers of Prince Sultan; Dr. 'Ali al-Mashat, director general of Arabsat, and Muhammad al-Onsur, Morocco's minister of communications. Also present at the launch was Gene Roddenberry, creator of the science-fiction series Star Trek.

One day later - after a probe by a TV camera mounted on a movable arm showed its solar wing in place - the Arab satellite, Arabsat-B, was deployed in space: 35,900 kilometers (22,300 miles) above the equator. "A very, very good job," said Prince Sultan as Arabsat-B - an in-orbit backup for the first Arab communication satellite, Arabsat-A, launched by a French Ariane rocket in February (see Aramco World, March-April 1985) - spun out of Discovery's cargo bay.

"My job now," the prince, an official at the Saudi Ministry of Information, told Aramco World later, "is utilizing the satellite to its maximum." This includes intra-Arab telecasts, telephone and telex calls, news and date exchange and community TV.

Prince Sultan, a 28-year old graduate of the University of Denver - with a degree in mass communications - and a trained pilot, was picked to be the first Arab in space after a search of several months. Because the Arabsat organization was to have its second satellite launched by NASA during the June flight, its 22 member countries were permitted to select a payload specialist to travel aboard Discovery, and Saudi Arabia won the slot.

Lacking the usual 12-month time frame for training, it was necessary to limit the search to candidates who were qualified pilots, who spoke fluent English and who were in exceptionally good health. Eventually, therefore, the list of candidates was narrowed to 20 men, then four and finally three.

NASA, however, could accept only two - the primary payload specialist and a back-up who would be trained to take over should the primary astronaut have to drop out of the mission. Prince Sultan was named the primary payload specialist and Major 'Abd al-Mohsin Hammad al-Bassam, a 36-year old instructor in the Royal Saudi Air Force, was selected to be his back-up.

Payload specialists are not involved in the launch or operation of the space shuttle; they begin to function only when the spacecraft commences its orbit around the earth. Nonetheless, their training schedule is intense.

Arriving in the United States on April 1, Prince Sultan and Major al-Bassam began the 114 hours of what NASA calls "habitability" training, or - in layman's language - learning to adapt to the routines of daily life in a space shuttle.

Initial tasks at the Johnson Space Center in Houston covered such ordinary, down-to-earth chores as choosing what clothing selected from NASA's list of possibilities and what food - again from NASA's proposed menu - they would desire while aloft. For the launch and landing procedures, light blue jumpsuits, decorated with various mission-related patches, were required, but once the shuttle reached orbit, the astronauts were free to wear whatever suited their individual taste. Obviously the Saudi national dress-the flowing thwb and ghutra - is not appropriate in zero gravity, but one traditional food of Saudi Arabia was stowed in the fresh food locker aboard the orbiter and consumed by the Arab astronaut: dates from Medina.

Generally speaking, Prince Sultan and the other astronauts on the mission ate foods that they themselves selected, before departure, from NASA's space shuttle menu; these foods were then color-coded with each astronaut's assigned color and packed for each day's meal. But in another first, Mission 51-G included gourmet foods for five of the 20 meals eaten in space by Prince Sultan. Patrick Baudry picked jugged hare, lobster, crab mousse and French chocolate pudding.

The astronauts also had to learn to handle general housekeeping chores in the confines of the crew's compartment -prompting Prince Sultan to describe the voyage as "a high-tech camping trip."

Prince Sultan also mastered three scientific experiments and two remote observation tasks that he later undertook during the mission; these experiments and the training of the specialists in the procedures were the responsibility of the Arabsat Scientific Experiments Team led by Dr. Abdallah Dabbagh, director of the Research Institute of the University of Petroleum and Minerals (UPM) in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Of the three scientific experiments performed by Prince Sultan, the most complex was an Ionized Gas Experiment designed by another member of the Saudi Royal Family, Prince Turki ibn Sa'ud ibn Muhammad Al Sa'ud, as part of his Ph.D. dissertation at Stanford University.

The purpose of this experiment was to obtain measurements which might help explain the extent of the chemical combination of the atoms of gas discharged from rocket engines with the atoms composing the earth's ionosphere - 50 to 1,000 kilometers up (30 to 620 miles). Though most scientists believe rocket-exhaust gases do not combine with ionospheric gases, some have noticed recently that there are ions and electrons in proximity to space vehicles as a result of the ignition of rocket engines.

To record the experiment, Prince Sultan used the shuttle's television cameras, which register changes in the gases discharged by the engines, such as temperature change, structure of chemical makeup, the mechanism of gas diffusion and the time required for dissipation; this was done by augmenting the strength of the television signals which will be interpreted with the help of computers.

The experiment was divided into five parts. In four of them, six television cameras were mounted on the shuttle's exterior, and in the fifth, a 70-mm still camera installed on the shuttle cabin's front window was used; thus it was possible to observe the three positions and the combination of gases in areas close to and distant from the shuttle. Now, at UPM, Saudi scientists are developing a new mathematical model from the experimental data - with the help of computers - and hope to emerge with new information on the phenomenon of gas diffusion in space.

In the earth-observation task, Prince Sultan - using a modified Hasselblad 500 EL/M camera and 70-mm Ektachrome film - took photographs of the southwestern section of the Arabian Peninsula during 49 passes over the kingdom. In spite of a small dust storm that originated in Somalia, most of the photo graphs were of good quality and, when compared with earlier remote sensing data, are expected to define known mineralized areas for future exploration. The photographs can also be used to help develop a groundwater exploration program and ongoing research into sand movement in Saudi Arabia.

In another experiment, Prince Sultan had to follow a detailed list of 23 specific steps to record the behavior of oil and water when mixed in the zero gravity of space - this time using a 35-mm camera with a zoom lens. At Prince Sultan's request, Kuwaiti oil and Algerian oil were used as well as Saudi oil in this experiment. When the results are compared with similar experiments on earth, valuable information may be added to on going research into combatting oil spill pollution and into possible improvements in oil recovery techniques.

In another first, Prince Sultan sighted - and photographed - the new moon from above the earth rather than on it; this is important in Muslim life because the sighting of the new moon at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan signals the end of the Ramadan dawn-to-dusk fast and the start of the joyous Id al-Fitr holiday.

The final experiment in which Prince Sultan was involved was actually initiated by the French. Originally performed by a French cosmonaut aboard the Soviet's Salyut-7 flight, this experiment was repeated by Patrick Baudry on Mission 51-G, when daily checks were carried out to measure the effects of weightlessness on the human body and its ability to adapt to the conditions of space.

Using biochemical electronic sensors, data, tape recorders, and a camera, Prince Sultan and Baudry tested each other's muscle tone, posture, vision, reflexes and spatial memory. One potential benefit from the experiment is a better understanding of the space adaptation syndrome - commonly known as motion sickness. In the past, this has affected nearly half of the astronauts sent into space, and victims usually display nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

"We are going to see some very good science come out of this," said NASA's Payload Integration Manager, Charles Chassay. "We look forward to them (the Saudi scientists) coming back in the future. .. many of the things they're doing, NASA is very interested in... and we are quite willing to work with them again."

Essentially the Saudi experiments were organized by Dr. Dabbagh's team: Dr. Mansour Nazer, Dr. Muhammad al-Suwayel and Dr. Hashim Yamani, assistant leaders; Dr. Zeni Saati and Dr. George Bucher, technical assistance/documentation; Dr. Nasser al-Homaid, Dr. Muhammad Tawfiq and Professor Abdulkadir al-Sari, investigators/earth observation; Dr. Adan Niazi, originator, investigator lunar crescent observation; Dr. Muhammad Z. al-Fi'r and Dr. Hamza Asar, investigator, phase separation experiment; Prince Turki ibn Sa'ud ibn Muhammad Al Sa'ud, originator, principal investigator, ionized gas experiment; Dr. Mohammad Budair, co-investigator, ionized gas experiment; Dr. Saad M. Al Rajih, Dr. Ali Abu Saleh, co-investigators/French posture experiment (FPE).

Working together, these men outlined the experiments, trained Prince Sultan and Major al-Bassam in the proper procedures and have subsequently been analyzing the findings in the kingdom's state-of-the-art laboratories.

These laboratories - particularly those at the Research Institute of UPM - have the sophisticated research equipment needed to analyze the data returned from Mission 51-G. One example is the Image Processing Center (IPC) of the Research Institute. In operation for three years, and the most sophisticated facility in the Arab world, it can process and analyze remote sensing data from aircraft, the space shuttle, and other satellites in orbit. The IPC has proven to be invaluable in such Research Institute projects as tracking oil spills, mineral and water exploration, agricultural monitoring, control.

The scientific experiments and observations carried out on Mission 51-G have a direct relation to ongoing research at the UPM and other universities in the Arab world. UPM Research Institute, for example is studying the movement of oil slicks, pollution, turbidity and fish communities in the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea. Institute specialists are also studying the movement of sand and how to control that movement. Chemistry, physics and petroleum and engineering departments have also been involved in similar serious research.

For Arab scientists, with their proud memories of the Golden Age and the House of Wisdom (See Aramco World, May-June 1982), the opportunity of working at the leading edge of science is an exciting challenge.

"The Arab world," says Prince Sultan, "is at a turning point. We have gone through the phases of oil, money and early technological development. The new generation is looking forward to joining the rest of the world by obtaining the most important things in that turnaround: opportunity and education. Together they are the keys that open the door for our future. My space flight is just a crack in that door."

When the astronauts disembarked, 'after circling the earth 111 times on their 2.9-million-mile journey, I Prince Sultan got a particularly warm welcome from his brothers, his backup astronaut Major al-Bassam and Dr. al-Mashat.

After a medical, Prince Sultan flew back to the Johnson Space Center, Texas, headquarters of Mission Control, where he told reporters that the highlights of his space flight were the blast-off from Cape Canaveral and the moment when, by passing out of the earth's atmosphere into space, he officially became an "astronaut."

Later, Prince Sultan told a television interviewer that another big moment was when he had first glimpsed Saudi Arabia from space. "Once," he said, "I was woken up by some crew members who said: 'Come and see your country.' I was looking from the upper deck window. The earth was above us, and I saw the Eastern Province with its lights. It was a very moving sight." But the "happiest moment," Sultan said "was coming back - re-entering the earth's atmosphere. Whatever distance we travel away from earth, man always feels that this is his home, not space or anywhere else."

At the same interview, Prince Sultan praised the team of Saudi scientists, who had been monitoring his experiments from earth. "We don't lack talent in the Arab world. We have plenty of it," the prince said. "All we need to do is give people the chance to prove themselves." Prince Sultan also displayed the small Koran he had carried into space; inside was a prayer dictated by his mother asking God to take care of travelers - and the prince's Saudi pilot's licence. "I was saying the prayer during take off," said Sultan. "And the pilot's license?" he was asked. "I took that with me in case we had to land somewhere and I needed to hire an areoplane."

As it turned out, of course, this was not necessary; mission 51-G turned out to be one of the most trouble-free space flights to date. It also proved, said Shuttle Director Moore, a particularly important point: "BOSS countries participated in the mission - 22 of them Arab as part of Arabsat - demonstrating we can all work together for peaceful exploration of space."

This article appeared on pages 20-29 of the January/February 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1986 images.