For more than 1,400 years, Muslims have looked for the first crescent of the new moon to mark the end of Ramadan, the holy month of dawn-to-dusk abstinence from food, drink and sex. The heavenly sign can be difficult to spot from Earth, but, if all goes as planned this Ramadan, Islam will have its own representative in an ideal position to get a clear fix.
Following a Koranic exhortation to the faithful to observe the heavens, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud is scheduled to blast off this week aboard the NASA space shuttle Discovery 51-G and become the first Arab and first Muslim in orbit.
“People say I am my country’s John Glenn, but I think I’m much better looking,” jokes the handsome 28-year-old bachelor nephew of Saudi King Fahd. In fact, Salman Al-Saud’s dedication during the past eight weeks of intensive training refutes the stereotypical image of a playboy oil-kingdom prince. A jet pilot with 1,000 hours of flying time and director of Saudi Arabian Television’s Commercial Department, Salman Al-Saud was selected from among more than 100 candidates to serve as his country’s first astronaut. Besides spotting the new moon over the western horizon, Salman Al-Saud will observe the launch of Arab-sat 1-B, a satellite designed to improve communications among the 22 Arab countries he represents. He will also take geological survey photos of his country from space, conduct three experiments designed by Saudi Arabia’s University of Petroleum and Minerals and join in an experiment on the physiological effects of weightlessness with French crew member Patrick Baudry. “It used to be my dream just to watch a launch,” says the prince. “We used to think that space was reserved to the Americans and the Russians.”
He has had to earn his place among the high frontier’s pioneers. Rising before sunrise to eat and pray, he has gone through NASA’s rigorous training program without having so much as a glass of water during the daylong fasting periods of Ramadan, while taking an additional seven-mile run or 35-mile bike ride six days a week. He has kept a low profile, living in a small condominium just opposite mission control headquarters in Houston’s Johnson Space Center, and he has won the respect of veteran astronauts. “Sally Ride, John Young, they were my heroes,” he says, “and now they are my friends.”
Just before blast-off, the prince will call his mother, Sultannah, in Mecca, where she will spend the week in prayer and watch the live telecast in Arabic. The prince will take his Koran with him into space, but because the shuttle will whip around the Earth once every 90 minutes, he will not be expected to face Mecca during his daily prayers. “By the time I would find it in space, it’s gone again,” he explains. “But as Muslims, God told us he hears our prayers wherever we are.”
Salman Al-Saud says he welcomes his role as space hero “as long as I keep reminding myself that I’m only a representative of the Arabs, of Muslims. No one can do this only for himself.”