The writer is the UAE’s minister of state for advanced technology and chair of the UAE Space Agency
Next year, on February 9, the United Arab Emirates’ Mars Hope Probe is set to end its seven-month journey to the red planet. The probe will carry out a manoeuvre that will insert it into Mars’ orbit, where it will start to measure weather systems to build the first full picture of the climate throughout the Martian year.
The UAE will become only the fifth entity to reach the planet. This is a big achievement for the nation, having come as a relative outsider to space exploration, and it has been done in a unique way.
When presenting the work of Emirates Mars Mission, I’m often asked about my experiences as a woman in Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This can be frustrating — I cannot claim to speak on behalf of all women’s experience in the field, and my career has been filled with talented and ambitious scientists and engineers who just happen to be women. But I’m glad if my sharp team of creative thinkers and problem solvers inspire others to enter the world of advanced technology. Technology and innovation welcome all who are committed to being bold in solving some of the world’s greatest challenges.
More than 70 per cent of UAE university graduates are women, as are more than half our Stem graduates. It surprises me that people find this remarkable: gender equality was a value instilled by our founding father. Pay parity is enshrined in law here. Educational opportunities are equal.
When it comes to diversity in Stem, true innovation is about more than gender equality. It’s about combining different ages, nationalities, fields of expertise and backgrounds. Without that, we risk stasis. The Emirates Mars Mission is progressive in that 80 per cent of its scientists and a third of the technical team involved are women. But it also challenged convention in other ways.
The UAE is a young nation — 50 next year — with a young, highly educated population. Our journey to Mars was entrusted to engineers who were all under 30 years old when the mission started. The team’s average age is now 27. The only prerequisites are dedication, ambition and a willingness to explore. Some say the young are impatient. Perhaps that helps explain how we launched the probe in only six years instead of the usual 10-12 years. That’s not to say that advances in science aren’t achieved by respecting the work of those who have gone before us. They most certainly are. Great things can happen through collaboration between heritage and innovation.
Our mission transcended borders, bringing together perspectives and practices from across the globe. The Hope Probe was designed and developed by the Emirates Mars Mission team at the Mohammed bin Rashid Space Centre in Dubai, but in collaboration with the University of Colorado, Boulder, Arizona State University and the University of California, Berkeley. Technology was sourced from Europe and the launch took place at Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre. With close collaboration across three continents, we quickly realised how differently individuals thought and approached problems; single-mindedness has no place in a field that explores the unknown.
Of course, it’s not only space science that benefits from a diverse and collaborative approach — we also see it in today’s international effort to find a vaccine against Covid-19. It makes us smarter, quicker and able to benefit from the ideas and perspectives of each member.
This blend of diversity and collaboration has allowed us to achieve our Mars mission in the time we have. Embracing new ways of thinking could bring greater success across all scientific fields. I understand why I am so often asked about women in Stem but at the heart of it, technology and innovation need true diversity, beyond gender, if we are to achieve greatness.