One of the things I enjoy about investigating space travel is seeing the ways in which it highlights and integrates cultural differences. This is, perhaps, most obvious in the special meals that astronauts of different nationalities take with them, and share with their crewmates. The most recent example of this is the UAE’s first astronaut – Hazzaa Ali Almansoori – who has just returned from an eight-day visit to the International Space Station.

All astronauts and cosmonauts who launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, perform a complicated set of launch rituals, including urinating on the wheel of the bus that takes them to the launchpad. (Women can be excused from this one!) My favourite is the planting of a tree to celebrate the mission. 

Image credit: NASA/Victor Zelentsov

In this photo from NASA, we see Hazzaa Ali Almansoori with his NASA crewmate Jessica Meir and Oleg Skripochka of Roscosmos. Their launch on September 25 was captured by Christina Koch from the ISS in one of the most beautiful launch photos of all time:

Before he returned to Earth on October 3, Hazzaa Ali Almansoori hosted an Emirati meal for his space station colleagues, wearing traditional Emirati dress.

Before his trip, he and his back-up astronaut Sultan Al Neyadi tried about 200 varieties of halal space food to choose the menu. Almansoori was later quoted as saying:

“I’m honoured to be the first astronaut to host an Emirati night on board the ISS to promote the Emirati culture, which I am proud to belong to, and share some delicious Emirati food like salona, madrouba and balaleet, which I’m sure they will like.”

Balaleet is a traditional, sweet Emirati breakfast dish of egg and vermicelli, Madrooba is salt-cured fish seasoned with spices, and Saloona is a traditional Emirati stew made up of spicy vegetables with meat or fish, according to Gulf News.

Emirati space food, image courtesy of the MBR Space Centre

Luca Parmitano, ESA astronaut, said, “It’s also a cultural experience for all of us. Today we had an amazing lunch of specialities from the United Arab Emirates that were brought up in a space format just for us.”

“Having space food written in Arabic on board was a really welcome addition to the cuisine on board,” added NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan. “Because we have space food from so many different countries. We have Italian food, we have French food, we have Japanese food, Russian food, American food. And now we’re adding to the mix, food from the Middle East – for the first time.”

via EuroNews

The UAE has also sent the first palm tree seeds into space. They arrived on the ISS on flight CRS-18, on July 25, as a germination experiment. They’re being monitored by astronauts and will return to Earth in a few months. There’s a control experiment running on Earth as well, of course.

“Palm trees are deeply rooted in our nation’s heritage and capable of thriving in harsh environments, which inspired us to launch the Palm in Space project and attempt to germinate a palm seed in space,” explained Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, director general of the UAE Space Agency.

via Forbes
[Smithsonian Magazine have a lovely article on why the date is so important to the Muslim world.]

But the UAE is looking beyond Earth’s orbit. According to Khalid Al Hashimi, director of Space missions, science and technology at the UAE Space Agency:

“We chose to send palm tree seeds to the International Space Station both because of their importance to the UAE’s culture and heritage, as well as the fact that they are able to withstand the harshest of conditions and are often planted in circumstances that resemble aspects of the Martian environment.”

via Forbes

In 2017, the UAE announced its 100-year plan to establish the first inhabitable human settlement on Mars. One of the early steps in this project is to build a city-sized Mars analog near Dubai. The Mars Science City “will replicate Martian conditions to provide a realistic model to simulate living on the surface of Mars“, and is due to be completed in four years. 

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ for this space simulation campus looks like the love-child of the Eden Project and Biosphere 2, and is utterly amazing:

It’s also the first Martian habitat design I’ve seen that would be tall enough to house palm trees!

Concept art for Mars City Dubai, image courtesy The Government of Dubai