Jonathon Narvey uses South Korea as a template for progress in the Middle East; among other things, he tries to make a point about space programs:
In 1950, this tiny country [South Korea] was broken, worse off even than the Arab Middle East of the time.
Sixty years later, South Korea is the 15th largest economy in the world, with an entrenched democratic political system and, despite the temporary setback of this week, an active space program. …
But back in the Middle East, all of the Arab states, comprising a far larger population and geographic area than South Korea, have a combined GDP less than the country of Spain (at one time a Muslim outpost in Europe). Space program? The closest thing to an Arab astronaut we might see in the next while could only be a Hamas suicide bomber strapped to an augmented Ashoura rocket.
Now that last sentence is a bit unkind — particularly since a cursory check online reveals at least two Arabs to have flown in space (a good place to look is Space Facts’s biographies of international astronauts).
- In June 1985, Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia flew as a payload specialist on STS 51-G, the fifth flight of Discovery; his backup, Abdulmohsen Al-Bassam, never flew in space.
- The Soviet Union’s Intercosmos program allowed a Syrian cosmonaut, Muhammad Faris, to travel to the Mir space station in July 1987 aboard Soyuz TM-3, returning on Soyuz TM-2. His backup, Munir Habib, never flew in space either.
Admittedly, they went to space through the benevolence of their Cold War patrons, but Arabs have been to space. Meanwhile, the first South Korean in space, Yi So-yeon, flew to the International Space Station only last year, in April 2008.
(Interestingly, the Intercosmos program also generated a cosmonaut from Afghanistan: Abdul Ahad Mohmand, who spent nine days on Mir in August and September 1988. The first Iranian in space, Anousheh Ansari, flew as a space tourist in September 2006; her family emigrated to the U.S. while she was still a teeenager. Neither Afghanistan nor Iran are Arab or part of the Middle East, but it’s not like those two countries aren’t conflated with it all the time.)