And this isn't just any deal. The federal space agency has agreed to share scientific data, telescopes, and maybe even spacecraft with the oil-rich country, with the main focus being on the "exploration of Mars."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formalized the agreement to work "together in the peaceful use of outer space for the benefit of humanity" on Sunday. Both Bolden and UAE Space Agency Chairman Khalifa Al Romaithi formally signed the agreement during a meeting in Abu Dhabi.
For NASA this seems to be a two-birds-one-stone kind of arrangement. Back in 2010, President Obama directed NASA to reach out to the Middle East as part of a bid to improve relations. This was about the same time that the space shuttle program ended and its replacement program was cancelled, NASA's budget had been slashed to ribbons and the president was urging the space agency to focus on "Earth improvement" more than the whole space travel thing. The situation was not looking good for NASA, so NASA officials started searching for other avenues to get what they needed to actually pull off the Mars mission.
Since then, Obama has somewhat warmed to the idea of actually using NASA to explore space, and NASA's budget has steadily increased in recent years, a sign of support from both the president and Congress. But despite the extra funds, emphasis on finding other non-federal ways, whether it's partnerships with other countries or private companies like SpaceX, to gather data and do research to prepare for Mars has remained. The UAE deal fits in well with this approach, plus it satisfies that old directive Obama gave Bolden about cultivating partners in the Muslim world.
UAE space ambitions are more modest than NASA's — the UAE space agency plans on sending an unmanned probe to Mars by 2021. Access to NASA's data and expertise and scientific toys could help the UAE's space agency pull off their goal. At the same time, this partnership could also pay off well for NASA. The federal space agency will likely be able to use any gathered UAE data to get a better idea of how to handle NASA's own plan to land astronauts on Mars sometime in the 2030s, without having to foot the bill for the unmanned spacecraft going to Mars.
The timing is good too, at least NASA-wise. Congress goes back and forth on the whole Red planet plan pretty steadily, as we've previously reported. Earlier this year Congress upped NASA's funding again and urged officials to hurry up and focus on getting to Mars. Then last month Congress was questioning whether NASA's plan to get to Mars is feasible and whether the plan — which could ultimately cost more than $1 trillion — will be worth the cost. Some even suggested the Mars funds should be rerouted to protecting Earth from asteroids or cleaning up floating space junk.
With that kind of reasoning coming out of the entity that controls NASA's budget, it makes all the sense in the world NASA officials are partnering up with anyone and everyone also interested in getting to Mars. Such partnerships could be crucial to the federal space agency down the line.
Bolden is touting the UAE agreement as another step toward Mars that just happens to be moving NASA and mankind as a whole toward other, better things. "Together, we can bring humanity to the face of Mars and reach new heights for the benefit of all humankind," Bolden stated in a recent blog discussing these types of partnerships between space agencies. "And we will."
Meanwhile, we were curious what the presumptive presidential nominees for the Republican and Democratic parties had to say about NASA's newest partnership. The Houston Press reached out to the campaigns of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to get their respective takes on the deal, but hasn't heard back yet. We'll update when and if we do. (Trump recently complained the media doesn't ask him enough serious questions, so the Press decided to ask start asking him serious questions. Then the Press asked Clinton too, because we have to be fair about this.)
Despite Bolden's Utopian take on what the new alliance with the UAE means, it's worth noting this might not be as big a deal to the UAE as it is to NASA. After all, the UAE has also signed similar agreements of cooperation with China, the United Kingdom, and Russia.