Praying Toward Mecca ... In Outer Space Tell Me More's series "Flying High: The First In Their Class" reflects on some of the famous firsts that the space shuttle program produced. In this second installment, host Michel Martin speaks with Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of royalty to go to space.
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Praying Toward Mecca ... In Outer Space

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Praying Toward Mecca ... In Outer Space

Praying Toward Mecca ... In Outer Space

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: This week, as the U.S. space shuttle program draws to a close, we've been taking a look at some highlights from past missions in a series we are calling Flying High: The First in Their Class. Yesterday, we talked with Dr. Bernard Harris, a flight surgeon who in 1995 became the first African-American to walk in space. Today, we are talking about another famous first. In 1985, space shuttle Discovery left Kennedy Space Center.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY LAUNCH) Three, two, one. We have (unintelligible) ignition and lift-off. Lift-off of Discovery and the shuttle has cleared the tower.

MARTIN: During the week-long mission, the astronauts aboard would launch and retrieve a number of satellites and they would also participate in the first test of the Star Wars missile defense system. NBC news coverage at the time also made a point that this trip would be significant for another reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPACE SHUTTLE DISCOVERY LAUNCH)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: On board, and what makes this particular mission notable are two foreign astronauts, one Patrick Baudry from France, the other is Sultan Salman Al Saud, who is a Saudi prince, a 28-year-old Saudi prince.

MARTIN: On that day in June, 1985, his royal highness, Prince Sultan bin Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia became the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family to fly into space. And his royal highness is now the president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, and he's with us on the line now from Spain, where he is travelling. Your royal highness, thank you so much for speaking with us. It's our great pleasure.

Prince SULTAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: As we mentioned, you were the first Arab, the first Muslim and the first member of a royal family to fly into space. Of those three things, which was the most significant to you?

SAUD: Well, the flight itself, in fact. I wasn't paying attention too much to the titles, but that added an extra responsibility, especially the part about representing this part of the world, the Arab world and Islamic world. And that, basically, was the most significant part.

MARTIN: You have an interesting background. You have multiple qualifications. You're not only a pilot, you also have a masters in social and political science. Why did you want to make this trip?

SAUD: Well, I was, in those days, working in Information Ministry in Saudi Arabia, and they were recruiting for a mission that was offered by NASA. NASA was competing, in those days, I imagine, would be European Space Agency. One of the ways to get more satellites to fly on the space shuttle was to offer a seat, let's say a (unintelligible) specialist seat on the shuttle. So I chose a - very interesting for many countries, Mexico, India, Japan and many other countries. Saudi Arabia was chosen because it was a founding member of the Arab Satellite Organization, which was basically a multi-government organization that launches satellites, and still does.

They wanted to recruit from both the military and civilian population in Saudi, and 20 of us were basically asked to join. To me, it was of - really, those days a farfetched idea, if you like. I was pretty much enjoying - like I am now, enjoying the flying part and, you know, making that into a center part of my life. But, you know, sometimes fate, basically, directs things in a direction that you never imagined, and it was a tremendous opportunity.

MARTIN: One of the aspects of space travel that I think people find fascinating is how astronauts cope with the routines of daily life, be it eating or brushing their teeth. And traditionally, Muslims are required to pray five times a day. How did you address this responsibility while in space?

SAUD: Very easily. Because we have been acclimated, whether from a religious point of view or whether from just a personal point of view, I myself have grown up in the central part of Arabia, and we're surrounded by great deserts. And, of course, I'm a diver also at the same time. And I'm a flyer and I'm a glider pilot. And in doing all these things at the same time, they become natural when you work on them and practice them.

We never really saw Islam or religious duties as being something out of the ordinary. I remember, you know, whether we're flying or in different places - as a Muslim, you can pray anytime. You can face any direction. Like, in the space shuttle, you know, we can't really face to Mecca, although we're flying east, because we're flying at such a great speed. Like I said, those days, by the time you face Mecca, you probably already passed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SAUD: So, you know, in fact, also...

MARTIN: So what did you do? Just stop or - how did you manage it? You couldn't have a rug, I presume. You couldn't have a prayer rug.

SAUD: No rug. No magic flying rugs.

MARTIN: No.

SAUD: But, you know, I had to strap my feet so I can kneel. You know, you can't kneel fully because lack of lack of gravity, actually. But, you know, I prayed like a traveler. As travelers, we pray three times a day, not five times a day. And I prayed according to Florida time, when we launched. And, in fact, it was the end of the fasting month, which is approaching now, as you know, in about three weeks.

And we did fast the whole month of Ramadan in Houston, on Clear Lake. And we - in fact, the NASA people were very kind enough to say if we wanted to adjust our program to start a bit later, and wee said we'll start exactly the same time we started every day, which is about 6:30, 7:00 in the morning. It was hot in the summer those days, like these days, and we went on through the day. And I'd need no more than five or six hours of sleep, and we were never the healthiest. So the last day of the mission was actually the last day of Ramadan, or so. So I also was the first person to fast a day of the month of Ramadan in space.

MARTIN: Okay. Yesterday, as I mentioned, we spoke with Dr. Bernard Harris who, on his second mission, became the first African-American to walk in space. But he also talked to us about being part of the space shuttle mission to Russia's Mir space station. And he talked about the importance of that international collaboration in space. I want to just ask if you had some thoughts about that.

SAUD: Definitely. I think space is a unifier, and science and technology. And when people that joint venture in doing things, it's always a good thing for planet Earth and people of the planet Earth. I believe that we - we were actually hoping after the space mission, we had other talks being already advanced to fly somebody every two years, a 10-year program, five missions to the space station and put more scientists (unintelligible) enthusiastic. But, you know, the Challenger accident came and sort of derailed things a little bit.

When I met with late President Reagan in the end of '85, he was very enthusiastic about continuing to joint venture on science and technology. And we have made great strides in Saudi in the area of science and technology and knowledge building for the young generations. I think that humans need to find more and more things that unite them, and doing things together like these are very important to continue.

MARTIN: You know, what I forgot to ask you: Was it fun?

SAUD: Oh, what do you expect me to say?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I don't know. I've never been there.

SAUD: It was. Well, I'll tell you. The question that would ask me: Was it scary? And I tell people that I was just having so much fun, I forgot what scary was. And, you know, I was young enough and maybe not so wise that all I was thinking about is the experience. I imagine every single person to fly in space would tell you there was not a scary moment in that whole episode.

MARTIN: His royal highness, Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud was a payload specialist on STS-51-G, a flight of the space shuttle Discovery in June of 1985. We caught up with him in Spain. Your royal highness, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SAUD: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: If you'd like to listen to our interview with Dr. Bernard Harris, the first in our series Flying High, The First in Their Class, just go to NPR.org. Click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Tomorrow, we continue this series with the first Latina in space, Ellen Ochoa.

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