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Volume 37, Number 1January/February 1986

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Down to Earth

Written by Kenneth Storey and Joseph Fitchett
Additional photographs by A. De Wildenburg and Kenneth Storey

Since Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, the first Arab astronaut, returned to earth, swooping out of the darkness to a smooth dawn landing at Edwards Air Force Base in June, he has been lauded and applauded as few astronauts have been since the early days of exploration.

According to one reporter Prince Sultan won the instant regard of the media when he returned to Houston by heading straight for the press box immediately upon leaving the jet from California. "That was a good move," the reporter smiled. "He knew why we were there."

With his background in communications - he has a degree in that subject - His Royal Highness probably did realize that he was the star of Mission 51-G. If not, however, he soon found out as, in the next three months, he toured Europe and the United States, accepted medals and awards, met President Reagan and appeared on such nationwide television shows as CBS's Morning News.

When the Prince first returned to earth the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) immediately awarded him a Space Pioneering Medal and a Certificate of Merit. But it was in Saudi Arabia that the prince, a nephew of King Fahd and a grandson of King 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn Sa'ud, founder of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, received what the Associated Press described as a "hero's welcome across the kingdom." This welcome, a seemingly endless series of "processions and motorcades, flying flags and festive decorations, singing and dancing, poetry reading, gifts, awards and commendations," as an embassy newsletter in Washington, D.C. described it, was not unlike the ticker-tape receptions accorded Lindbergh on his return to the U.S. after he flew the Atlantic nearly 60 years before.

At the airport in Taif, Prince Sultan was met by his uncle, the king, who awarded him the Order of King 'Abd al-'Aziz and announced his promotion to major in the Royal Air Force. From there he went on to Medina, to pray at the Prophet's Mosque; to the King Khalid Air Force Base near Abha in 'Asir Province; and to Riyadh - where his motorcade was welcomed by throngs of cheering people.

In addition to those honors, the Saudi government also issued two new stamps. One, a 20-halala stamp, shows the space shuttle, a satellite, a minaret and the official emblem of the Saudi government. The other, a 115-halala stamp, shows the shuttle on one side and a NASA emblem on the other, with the names of all the astronauts that went up in the Discovery.

The excitement began to build as soon as it was announced that a member of Saudi Arabia's royal family had been picked to be the first Arab in space - and reached staggering proportions between June 17 and June 24 when hours of live telecasting from the Cape Canaveral launch pad and Houston's Mission Control - plus daily Washington updates - kept millions of Arabs in the kingdom glued to their television sets. According to Worldwide Television News (WTN) an estimated 10 million people in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia were tuned in.

Interest was by no means limited to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Lured by the fact that a tall, darkly handsome jet pilot was to be the first Muslim in space, millions in Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America eagerly followed the progress of Mission 51-G on television and in print. Even in the United States, where space flights have become almost routine, the presence of Prince Sultan on board the Discovery created fresh interest. ABC-Television, calling the prince the "real celebrity" of the flight, showed a film of him talking from space to his uncle King Fahd in Ryadh. And Sandy Gilmore of CBS, USA Today, America's nationwide daily newspaper, and the prestigious New York Times all responded with enthusiasm when he said, "Looking at it [the earth] from up here, the troubles all over the world and not just in the Middle East look very strange as you see the boundaries and the border lines disappearing."

Important international personalities echoed the TV commentators and newspaper columnists. In London, Jonathan Aitken, a British member of parliament, said the prince's involvement in the space program was a "historical step" forward for Saudi Arabia. In New York, Clovis Maksoud, Arab League ambassador to the United Nations, said: "The flight is a symbol of the resilience of our people ... and the determination of the Arab people to cope with the latest scientific challenges." And in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dr. Farouk El-Baz, the first Arab to participate in the American Space Program, (See Aramco World November, 1976), predicted that it would "cause a revolution in the thinking of the Arab youth." In the 1960's and 1970's, Dr. El-Baz, an Egyptian and now a vice-president with Itek Optical Systems, participated in site selection for the Apollo missions to the moon, and was in charge of astronaut training for orbital science and photography.

In Europe, in September, Prince Sultan, setting off on an international good will tour, attended a reception at the residence of U.S. Ambassador to France, Joe M. Roger - whose construction company had once done work in Saudi Arabia. The highlight of the visit to Paris, however, took place on a drizzly gray morning when he and five other astronauts - including France's astronaut on Mission 51-G, Patrick Baudry - were inducted into the prestigious Legion of Honor. Established by Napoleon, the legion's famous medal is the highest honor that France can bestow - and in a special gesture for the occasion, it was awarded to Prince Sultan and the other astronauts by Prime Minister Laurent Fabius personally.

It was a colorful ceremony. With television lights glinting off the swords of an elegant French Honor Guard and picking out gold threads in tapestries at the Hotel Matignon, home of France's prime minister, an international cross section of diplomats, ministers, scientists and industrialists crowded into the 18th-century palace to see the astronauts - Prince Sultan, Baudry and the four Americans, Commander Dan Brandenstein, John Creighton, Job Fabian and Shannon Lucid, the sixth woman in space - and to hear Prime Minister Fabius appeal for peace in space. "If there is one domain where international cooperation should exist," he said, "it's space, because space is the future and we want it to be a peaceful one for mankind."

For the astronauts, the gathering in Paris was also a reunion and though they were kept busy posing for photographers and mingling with such guests as Research Minister Henri Curien, former head of France's Ariane space program, Ambassador Jamil Al-Hejailal of Saudi Arabia and other officials, they also managed to reminisce a bit, compare their famous medals and crimson rosettes and chat with the press. Prince Sultan, for example, reminded Aramco World's Paris correspondent that he had interviewed the prince in Riyadh three years before. Back then, the prince recalled, "I was passionately interested in airplanes long before Saudi Arabia had any thought of having any astronaut, let alone me."

The impact of his becoming an astronaut, and the flight into space, Prince Sultan went on, was tremendous, especially on young people in Saudi Arabia. "I think it snowed them that space, like the rest of high technology, is not the exclusive hunting ground of the West and that - literally - not even the sky is the limit any more." In addition, he said, the flight had an important effect on Saudi-American friendship. "This flight," he told Charles Wick of the USIS, "had more effect than a million hours of Voice of America broadcasting because it showed our friendship."

During a soccer game in Riyadh, Prince Sultan continued, he switched to English when he addressed nearly 50,000 people and spotted the U.S. Ambassador in the crowd. "Afterwards I noticed groups of enthusiastic Saudis clustering around the ambassador to offer congratulations to the United States too."

From Paris, Prince Sultan went on to visit Cannes, Tours, Bordeaux and Toulouse - heart of the French aerospace industry - before flying off to the United States for another round of appearances and interviews during a four-city, five-day good will tour, much of it arranged by the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA).

In the States, Saudia, the kingdom's national airline, put a Grumman Gulf-stream jet at Prince Sultan's disposal and the prince, who loves to fly, decided to pilot the aircraft himself starring with a flight from Washington to Boston.

In Boston, his first meeting was with reporters and editors from the Boston Globe, New England's biggest newspaper, and his second at the Massachusetts State House where House Speaker George Keverian welcomed Prince Sultan in his private chambers and presented him with a "Revere Bowl," a sterling silver bowl originally designed by Paul Revere, a silversmith and patriot who, in alerting colonists in Lexington that British soldiers were coming, helped fire the famous "shot heard round the world"the first shot fired in the American Revolution."

Prince Sultan also received a citation from Massachusetts and delivered a moving address focused on the links between the United States and the Islamic world. "When I went up, I ... represented 800 (million) to a billion Muslims, and I... took all of them with me to space in an American space ship," he said. "I hope one day you will see the significance of what happened. You have generations of young people in Saudi Arabia who are really extremely very proud of what happened, and I am very proud to have been connected with America on this one... I think through cooperation, like what happened with NASA ... our peoples will become closer."

Continuing to cheerfully cooperate with the media, Prince Sultan also taped an interview for a 200-station radio network at the Christian Science Monitor, participated in a live phone interview with WEEI radio, an all-news station in Boston, and taped an interview with Middle East Insight show.

In Boston, Prince Sultan and his party also attended a reception at the Boston Museum of Science - including a quick look at the museum's Middle East science section - and an interview with the Arabic Hour, a television program shown regularly in Boston and San Francisco.

From Boston, Prince Sultan flew to National Airport in Washington, D.C. where, the next day, with Prince Bandar, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid al-Sudairi and Commander Daniel Brandenstein, he met President Reagan in the Roosevelt Room in the White House.

Echoing sentiments voiced in France and Massachusetts, President Reagan congratulated the Prince and Commander Brandenstein, "not only for your mission ... but what it did in regard to our friendship and what it represents..."

In response, Prince Sultan told the President about the enthusiasm shown in Saudi Arabia for Mission 51-G. "All of the people are very appreciative of the opportunity the U.S. has given us. I was telling Dan (Commander Brandenstein) as a matter of fact, that the reception we got was well beyond the dreams we had. So everyone has a lot of good will for this country and its people."

Prince Sultan also gave President Reagan an astrolabe, an ancient navigational instrument, some T-shirts commemorating Mission 51-G and a flight jacket with the Saudi Arabian flag sewn on it. The garments should be worn, he suggested, when the President was at his Santa Barbara ranch. "Well, thank you very much," said President Reagan, "I assure you I'll use these, but I won't go higher than the back of a horse."

From the White House, the Prince drove to the CBS studios on M street to tape an interview with Charlie Rose, host of the late night CBS news show, Nightwatch. Next, the Prince and his party went to the Dirksen Building to meet Senator Jake Garn, who had gone up on the Discovery two months before. Senator Garn escorted Prince Sultan to the Senate dining room where they met two other congressional spacemen: Congressman Bill Nelson of Florida - who has since gone into space himself-and Senator John Glenn, the first astronaut to orbit the earth, in February 1962, and a Democratic presidential nominee in 1984.

That night, Prince Sultan was guest of honor at a 7:30 p.m. reception at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia on New Hampshire Avenue, where NASA Chief James Beggs said there was nothing unusual in Saudi Arabia's enthusiasm for space since it was the Arabs who pioneered space research, "long before there was a NASA."

As elsewhere, the Prince gave interviews almost constantly. At one point, he talked to reporters - including those from the Washington Post and Platt's Oilgram - for three straight hours. But finally at 3:00 p.m. he took the controls of the Grumman again and flew to the next stop: Dallas.

The highlight of the Dallas stopover was undoubtedly the Prince's visit with the kids at the Science/Engineering Magnet School (See page 34), but he didn't neglect the grown-ups either. After an eight-mile run in the afternoon, he smiled his way though another massive banquet: a 150-guest affair sponsored by NAAA. Then, at 11:00 p.m., barely pausing for breath, he took off to Los Angeles, the last stop.

By then, even the apparently tireless prince, as one observer described him, was beginning to feel the strain, so aides kept the Los Angeles Times and Middle East Magazine at bay until 6:00 p.m. the next day. Then, after another banquet - attended by 300 elegant guests - and another gubernatorial greeting, he took off for Hawaii, this time for a vacation under the stars.

For Prince Sultan, clearly, his international travels were a resounding personal success. Over and over, reporters and writers covering him came up with glowing descriptions like that in the Los Angeles Times: "boyish enthusiasm, princely responsibility and a unique mix of confidence ... and good manners..."

But his tour was also a triumph for Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as a whole. One writer, on seeing Prince Sultan talking to King Fahd from space, said that the people of Saudi Arabia suddenly realized what has been happening during the last 30 years as the kingdom developed "at 2,000 miles an hour, as Prince Sultan put it.

Prince Sultan himself tended to downplay the quite natural hyperbole that cropped up here and there in the press; he said he didn't really think of himself as "the personification of the Islamic renaissance," as one paper described him. But he was certainly aware of the symbolic importance of being the first Arab in space. In an interview with Maria Shriver of CBS Morning News, for example, the Prince said, thoughtfully, that as a result of space voyage, Arabs generally were "reliving what the Islamic civilization had, and enjoyed ... in the past ... the sciences ... which form the basis for what we see now in the space program."

In Istanbul, a month later, the prince picked up the theme of Arabs and science again. This time, though, he was actively promoting it. It's time he suggested, that Muslim states develop their own technology - as they did so successfully in the glorious eras of the past.

This article appeared on pages 30-40 of the January/February 1986 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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