It was not an easy decision for Houston-based Nanoracks, best known for running a commercial cubesat launch business from the International Space Station (ISS), to set up an office in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The company had been contracted by the UAE to handle the educational payload for the first Emirati astronaut mission. Hazzaa Al Mansoori, a former military pilot who once trained on F-16 fighter jets in Arizona, launched aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft on Sept. 25 with NASA’s Jessica Meir and Oleg Fiddler of Russia.

Al Mansoori spent eight days aboard the ISS under a commercial contract with Roscosmos, the Russian state corporation for space activities. The mission’s educational outreach programs include the distribution of palm tree seedlings that germinated on the station. 

Al Mansoori’s flight also got Nanoracks thinking about potential future business with the UAE and others in the region. “We believe that not only is the UAE dedicated and committed to long-range, commercial space programs, but also we see it as a gateway for big chunks of the world including parts of Africa and South Asia,” Nanoracks founder and CEO Jeff Manber tells Aviation Week.

“Ten years from now, I believe there will be launch vehicles and spaceports at the UAE, and we want to be in there and supporting their ecosystem,” says Manber.

In September, Allen Herbert, Nanoracks vice president of business development and strategy, and his family moved from Washington to Abu Dhabi, where the United Arab Emirates Space Agency (UAESA) headquarters is located. A second UAE space agency, the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), is 90 mi. north, along the Persian Gulf coast. 

“It’s the future,” Manber recalls Herbert saying as he pressed for the relocation.

Another U.S. company, Virgin Galactic, signed a memorandum of understanding in March with UAESA intended to bring SpaceShipTwo suborbital flight services to the UAE. Virgin Galactic’s early investors included Mubadala Capital (formerly Aabar Investments), a sovereign wealth fund of the Abu Dhabi government.

The UAE’s space program was spawned from modest origins. In 2016, the country began a three-year development effort between the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology—the precursor to MBRSC—and South Korea’s Satrec Initiative satellite-manufacturing company for DubaiSat-1. The goal was to jump-start the UAE’s technical knowledge by sending teams to South Korea to learn how to design and build satellites. 

The spacecraft, launched in July 2009, was followed by DubaiSat-2, another three-year project to develop a more advanced Earth-imaging satellite. This time, Emirati engineers led the project design and implementation, with technical support from South Korea. DubaiSat-2 reached orbit in November 2013. 

By the time planning began for DubaiSat-3, later renamed KhalifaSat (after UAE federation President Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan), the Dubai-based team was ready to build on its own turf. On Oct. 29, the satellite marked its first year in orbit. 

“We want to make sure our missions are scientifically significant and that our program will be sustainable with continuous missions,” Salem Al Marri, assistant director general for science and technology at MBRSC, said at the International Astronautical Congress, held in Washington Oct. 21-25.

The projects include an ambitious effort to send a science satellite to Mars. Launch of the Hope spacecraft on a Japanese H2-A rocket is scheduled for July 2020, a planetary window the U.S., Europe and China also plan to take advantage of with the Mars 2020, ExoMars Rover and China Mars 2020 missions, respectively.

The UAE’s Hope spacecraft, built by Dubai’s MBRSC and the University of Colorado and Arizona State University in the U.S., is designed to study the daily and seasonal weather on Mars. It is expected to be the first of a series of UAE-backed Mars missions that pave the way toward a permanent human settlement on Earth’s neighbor planet within 100 years. 

“Their aspirations are to be an operational, in-space Luxembourg, with the business and regulatory climate to attract companies; but they also want to have spaceports,” says Manber. “They’re already a business-friendly country, and they are sophisticated in international trade. They enjoy relations with all the nations of the world. They can take this and fly into space. That’s very powerful.”

Growing the UAE’s presence in space depends largely on attracting the country’s youthful population to technical and scientific careers. “Fifty percent of the population in the Arab world is under age 30,” Al Marri noted. 

“Throughout our program, we intend to inspire the regional and Arab countries to participate in missions, not necessarily with astronauts at the beginning, but with science, education and outreach. This is our overall objective,” he said.