The first Arab scheduled to go into space said yesterday that his flight next month aboard the space shuttle Challenger is bound to improve diplomatic relations between the United States and the Islamic world.
"You will have 800 million Moslems and 155 million Arabs glued to their television sets watching an American spaceship carry an Arab into space," Saudi Arabian Prince Sultan Salman Abdel Aziz Saud said at a news conference at Houston's Johnson Space Center. "I feel very proud to represent 22 nations of the world and cannot imagine that it will not help Arab-American relations."
The 28-year-old nephew of Saudi's King Fahd noted that he will be in space during Islam's holiest time, the period of June that takes in Ramadan and ends with the new moon and the festive holiday of Id al Fitr on June 18. If Challenger's launch is on time and nothing goes wrong during the eight-day flight, Sultan will be in orbit with his six colleagues from June 17 to June 25.
"I'll be crossing my fingers that we launch on the 17th," Sultan said. "I know I'll be the first Moslem to be in space, and it excites me very, very much that it will be during Ramadan." Sultan said he plans "nothing special" for Ramadan and will not even look for Mecca from orbit when he prays in Challenger's somewhat cramped cabin.
"I consulted an Islamic scholar about that, telling him it would be really difficult to find Mecca five times a day from space," Sultan said with a smile. "I even pointed out that by the time I find Mecca, it will be gone, so he said not to worry about it, just to do what I feel is comfortable."
A pilot who has logged more than 1,000 hours in jet aircraft, Sultan was selected from hundreds of Saudi aspirants to become the first Arab to fly in space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration gave Saudi Arabia the opportunity to nominate an astronaut in part because Challenger will be carrying an Arabsat communications satellite into orbit.