A Saudi Prince Comes Home From the Stars : Shuttle Mission Launched the First Arab Astronaut in His New and Symbolic Role Here on Earth

Times Staff Writer

He is an Arabian prince. He is an astronaut. He is Prince Sultan ibn Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia, who went up in space last June, a payload specialist on the 18th mission of the space shuttle Discovery. He helped launch Arabsat, a telecommunications satellite owned by the Arab League, and came back a hero to his people, who are calling this first Arab astronaut “the personification of the Islamic renaissance.”

That is a heavy crown, even for the ego of a prince, to carry around. Is that how he feels about himself?

“I don’t feel that at all,” Prince Sultan exclaimed with a start, pointing toward himself with an involuntary “who me?” gesture. “I’m only 29! I’ve got a long way to go.”

Spreading Good Will

The prince was in Los Angeles last weekend for a banquet in his honor given by the National Assn. of Arab Americans and Lockheed Corp. at the Sheraton Premiere. The stop was part of an American visit that included a meeting with President Reagan at the White House, where, he said, he conveyed his thanks and let the President know what tremendous good will the mission had brought the United States in the Arab world.

The prince seems to be creating good will of his own at home and abroad, combining a boyish enthusiasm, princely responsibility and a unique mix of naturalness, confidence and good manners as he greets the world.


Having piloted his entourage in from Texas in the middle of the night in a Grumman Gulf Stream aircraft, he was ready for public life in the late afternoon. It was “Hi, how are you?” and an offhand apology for the long delay at the door to his suite at L’Hermitage (he was changing from jeans to a suit). He was ready to describe his experience and what it means to him and his people.

Grandson of the late King Abdul Aziz and son of Prince Salman ibn Abdul Aziz, governor of Riyadh, Prince Sultan spent five years in Colorado, earning a degree in mass communications from the University of Denver and picking up a rather complete American idiom and accent.

Having worked for the ministry of information in Saudi Arabia and as deputy director of the Olympic Information Committee during the Los Angeles Games last year, he was back serving as acting director of advertising at Saudi Arabian Television when the space shuttle loomed on his horizon.

NASA offered the Arab League the opportunity to fly a payload specialist as part of its policy toward countries and companies doing business with it. The League decided that rather than open a competition among its 22 members, the opportunity would go to Saudi Arabia, Prince Sultan said, because it was the major shareholder.

Within Saudi Arabia, however, the competition was on, as ministries and departments recruited civilians and military people thought eligible for the flight and backup team. The Ministry of Communications was able to submit some of its civilians, including himself, the prince said, because the ministry “is going to be a beneficiary of the satellite.”

He Never Dreamed It

He was the one. Such a thing had never been in his plans, he said.

“But, it was a dream, yes,” he said. “When the first shuttle went up in 1981, I was a student in Colorado, and I barricaded myself in my room. I had two televisions and lived on pizza and Coca-Cola. My friends would stop by and watch with me . . . . And then when the 747 landed in Denver, with the shuttle on top of it, we went out to the airport at 5:45 a.m. and stood there for an hour. It was the most awesome sight I had ever seen.”

But not anymore. Not after looking at the Earth from space.

“You would fall asleep and wake up after 45 minutes maybe, and take a look at the Earth. It was the most amazing feeling--the complete blackness out there and the way the rim of the Earth joins it. It was one of the most breathtaking experiences of my life.”

The experience seemed to really begin for him, he said, when he was in training at NASA in Houston, during the final quarantine period with the seven-member crew, which included a French astronaut, four American men and one American woman. They were following the schedule they would observe for the seven days of their mission in space. It happened to coincide with Ramadan, the Muslim month of daytime fasting that precedes the new year.

He would wake at three, go for long walks before sunrise, fast until night, and think.

‘So Many Eyes on You’

“The thought that kept coming was that being the first one (Arab) there were so many eyes on you. I had to prove myself not once but twice (as an astronaut and as an Arab astronaut). If anything went wrong with the flight, even if it was something that wasn’t my fault, or if I had nausea or got sick or was too tired--it would be a disaster.”

He had done well with the zero gravity experiments, but the old-timers assured him that meant he really would get sick in space. The nausea was the scariest part for him, he said. Not one to take medicine readily under any circumstances, he decided not to use anything.

“How many times do you go in space? I wanted to feel everything, the good and the bad.”

He did. He was nauseous for three days, had the typical backaches, headaches, joint aches, and did not sleep like a king. He kept his sense of humor, he said, realizing, “the view was the best medicine I had.” Not a scientist himself, he nevertheless conducted the experiments the University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dharan had designed and trained him to do.

A Changed Life

He came home to a hero’s welcome and a changed life. No longer with the ministry of communications, he is a major in the Air Force now, but it seems his job--or mission--will draw on his mass communications skills more than ever.

The people had watched the voyage on television. They had heard him speak to King Fahd from outer space. It was as if, for the first time, he said, in this “country that had been developing from a primitive society at 2,000 m.p.h.r” for the last 30 years, it dawned on people what had been happening in their country’s recent history.

“They knew people had been going away to school, but they never really felt it. There has been so much that people, especially the young, overlook it. They take everything for granted. This helped us get away from the pessimism that’s been fed by the oil price talk. We’re in good shape. We’re in better than good shape. It’s just less than before, when it was beyond belief.”

The response was tremendous. At first he said, he and the team were receiving 800 to 1,000 letters a day from people all over the Middle East.

“They keep you in orbit,” he said of the letters, “every time you start to come down from it all.”

His New Mission

His main job will be to reach youth and encourage them to pursue math and the sciences. And yes, he said, that will include encouraging girls as well as boys--"they’re 50% of the population. They’re a big part of the family.”

What he will not do, he said, is encourage them all to become astronauts. Saudi Arabia, nor the Arab world in general, does not need two million astronauts.

He spoke at one youth rally at a soccer stadium, he said, where “I told them about a guy I met at NASA. I just stumbled into his office. He was designing a joint, a simple one. I asked him how long he had been doing that and he said, ‘Basically I’ve been doing this for 15 years.’ And he loved what he was doing, and he felt a part of the space program. He’s got his heart in it. That was the message I had for them: Not all of us can be out front.”

He is well aware of the symbolic significance of being the first Arab astronaut. He carried not only a Koran with him on his space voyage, but an astrolabe, the instrument of astronomical computation used in the medieval Islamic world. While he might not feel like the personification of the Islamic renaissance, he knows the comparison is not without meaning.

It is not coincidental that so many of the stars have Arab names, he said, referring to the astronomers, mathematicians and physicists of that earlier time.

“We had our own NASA a long time ago . . . " he said. “We went into a tailspin for a while. Hopefully this will be a revival of that.”

Although at least 80% of the population of his strictly Muslim society is conservative, he said, his trip into space and the revival he envisions is compatible with Islam.

He visited one Muslim elder, he said, one of those responsible for translating the message of the Koran into daily life, and never found him so happy. The holy man wanted Prince Sultan to tell him how one ate in zero gravity.

Encouraged to Learn

“There is a phrase in the Koran that says that people who know and people who don’t know are not equal. We are encouraged to go out and learn.”

Even though he is young, he can remember when there were 30,000 Saudis enrolled in school. Now there are two million he said. And for the past 10 years, there have been 15,000 students in the United States alone, plus those in other countries.

“We can see a future role for ourselves in the world. Not to compete, but to contribute.”

For all his nationalism, like others who have gone up in space and taken a look at the Earth, the prince described its profound effect on him, and the sense it gave him of a world community.

While still in space he was interviewed and asked how the trouble in the Middle East seemed from up there. He remarked at the time that all the trouble spots of the world seemed the same, and rather small. Perhaps, he said, those who were causing the trouble should come up for a look.

Now, he said, he does not believe in passports and visas and, in fact, almost left Saudi Arabia without his. It seems absurd to him, in particular, that an astronaut should have a passport.

“The first day or two up there, you try to recognize the countries, especially Saudi Arabia. It stands out. It’s very distinct. Then, you keep missing the countries and you look only at the continents. By the sixth day, the whole world becomes a beautiful blue and white and yellow painting. Those boundaries really disappear. With me they still are.”