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Kuwait should make space capability part of national strategy

Posted 4 December 2020 · Add Comment

Kuwait has all the resources needed to build a space agency, but it lacks the political will, said Bassam Alfeeli, the founder and CEO of Orbital Space, a start-up operational since 2018 in Kuwait, in an exclusive interview to Jay Menon of Arabian Aerospace on the eve of the countryís first scientific experiment in space.

Pictured: Bassam Alfeeli, the founder and CEO of Kuwait's Orbital Space with first mission due tomorrow (Image: Orbital Space)

Since the destruction of the Um Alaish ground satellite station in 1990, there was a huge pause in space activities in Kuwait till you single-handedly developed another ground station. How did you make this possible?

Um Alaish ground satellite station was established for telecommunications. As optical fiber telecommunications developed and the new generation of satellite communications did not require large dishes, the need to rebuild Um Alaish station could not be justified. I should note that satellite communications did not stop in Kuwait. It only moved from large dish antennas in a central location to very small dish antennas distributed over many locations.
My main goal is to build capabilities in space technology and my strategy was to learn as you go by taking small steps within my reach. I also wanted to draw attention to space activities beyond telecommunications and get public attention. I wanted to use an iconic symbol that people can relate to, one that they can connect with. Um Alaish station was an icon for advanced technology in Kuwait during the 70s. In fact, growing up, Um Alaish station was a source of inspiration to me, and others. I was so fascinated about it as our gateway to space.
I decided to set up a small ground station as a "do it yourself" (DIY) project. Because of my educational background in electrical engineering, I have a good knowledge of the theories and basics. I needed to learn the practical aspects - this part can’t be learned from books, but from doing, which is also the philosophy of Orbital Space educational programs. The name of the new station “Um Alaish 4” is a homage to Um Alaish, which has inspired me from a young age, and also to helps to draw the public's attention to Kuwait’s emerging space activities.

Could you brief us on the CubeSat programme that you have initiated?
After establishing good command in operating Um Alaish 4 satellite ground station - by receiving and processing signals from satellites passing over Kuwait, the natural next step was to have our own satellite. Continuing with the strategy of taking small steps, I made the decision to design and build a CubeSat. I tried to learn as much as possible from reading - there’s a lot of literature out there on CubeSats. But just like with the ground station, reading is not enough. I partnered with one of the leading CubeSat manufacturers to gain the necessary hands-on know-how to plan CubeSat missions, and then to design, build, and test my own CubeSat. The CubeSat is named QMR-KWT (which means “Moon of Kuwait”, translated from Arabic). As with the thought behind naming ‘Um Alaish 4”, QMR-KWT was named to call attention to the emergence of these amazing space activities happening in Kuwait. QMR-KWT has been designed, built, and tested. It is ready to go to orbit. It is scheduled to be launched in February 2021. The idea of QMR-KWT started before COVID-19 and the pandemic impacted our plans but we managed to overcome the challenges. When we started in 2019 we didn’t anticipate a pandemic in 2020 but we were mentally ready to face challenges and obstacles in the journey to put QMR-KWT in orbit.

With the launch of the first science experiment from Kuwait to space due tomorrow (December 5th), how excited are you?.
We are very excited about Kuwait’s Experiment in Space. It was initiated to signal to the public that space activities are happening in Kuwait, and to connect youth in Kuwait to this exciting sector . The journey started in fall 2019, and we are now witnessing the final steps in the historical event as Kuwait’s first Science Experiment heads to the International Space Station.
Our main objective with Kuwait’s Experiment is to engage as many students as possible in a very unique and exciting hands-on project. We wanted to prove that space is accessible to all so we gave the opportunity to students to send an experiment of their choice to space. We designed and structured this activity to mimic what scientists go through as they prepare for sending experiments on space missions. We designed the experience so that the students are going through the real-world procedures, trials and tribulations. This again, is learning by doing, and has helped to develop the students’ scientific skills as well as their leadership and communication skills.
What was the support base for such an ambitious project.
Sending a science experiment to the International Space Station (ISS) requires a lot of planning and coordination. We had the support of Kuwait University - where students used labs to prepare their experiment, and also received scientific mentorship. The project required a logistics team of dedicated people to coordinate and resolve issues and challenges faced during the past 12 months. Of course the opportunity to send experiments to the ISS is possible due to NASA’s leadership in opening up the U.S segment of the ISS to privately funded research and educational projects from around the world.

You have used personal funds to lead the establishment of the space programme. Wasn’t that a risky proposition, given the fact that you had no governmental support for a mega project such as this? 
On the surface it may appear to be a risky proposition, but you only need to see the reinvigoration of the sector around the Globe to understand that we needed to forge forward. But we have been following our strategy to build a deeper understanding and knowledge and to build our capabilities, by breaking down larger undertakings into smaller ones, and tackling them sequentially.

How do you think you can capture the booming space market in the Middle East?

We are relying on the first mover advantage to capture the market in the Arab World. We are not the first globally, but we are the first in the Arab region. Our competitive advantage is we know the Arabic language and culture, and our passionate approach.

I Understand that Orbital Space allows all global entities to use its ground station. Do you have plans to monetise this service?
Yes, our intention is to do that. Currently we offer a basic service at no cost. Our plan is to monetise our more advanced and sophisticated services.

 While most countries in the Gulf region are advancing their interest in space, where does Kuwait place itself currently. Do you have any plans to have a tie-up with other countries in the Gulf region or elsewhere?

Kuwait didn’t identify developing space capability as part of its national strategy. However, with our initiative and actions, we are hoping to change this. As a private company we are open to partnerships and collaboration opportunities with others, as we truly believe that cooperation and transparency is the best path to success in achieving mutual goals.

The demand for a Kuwaiti space agency has been growing for quite some time. What is the progress in that direction. What are the hurdles if at all any, according to you.
Unfortunately, establishing a space agency in Kuwait is not on the priority list in Kuwait. This is the main hurdle. Kuwait has all the resources needed to get started. It only lacks the political will.

Is the lack of a centralised space agency affecting space research in the country. If so how?
Yes. Not having a central body that sets strategic directions and coordinate efforts makes it very difficult to make systematic progress. The result is usually fragmented or duplicated efforts and we end up with not every efficient use of resources.

What are your future plans and projects that you are aiming for.
We are only at the start of the journey. There are many steps to be taken. We are very excited about them and look forward with excitement to our next steps. Our focus is to build capabilities to be able to provide products and services of value to the space sector in the region and eventually globally.

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