Al Sa'ud, Sultan Bin Salman (1956–)

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Al Sa'ud, Sultan Bin Salman

Sultan bin Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Sa'ud is the first Saudi, first Arab, first Muslim, and first Middle Easterner in space.


Prince Sultan was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 27 June 1956. A prince of the Saudi royal family, he is the grandson of the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, King Abd al-Aziz Al Sa'ud. His father, Prince Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, has been the governor of the Riyadh province since 1962, and is a very influential member of the royal family.

In 1981, Prince Sultan began working for the Department of International Communications of the Saudi Ministry of Information. He then worked as deputy director for the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee beginning in 1984. Back at the Ministry of Information, he became acting director of the Department of Advertising in 1984. The following year, Prince Sultan joined the Royal Saudi Air Force. He eventually became qualified to fly the advanced American-made F-16 fighter-bomber. In 1996, Prince Sultan retired from the Saudi air force with the rank of colonel.

From 17 to 24 June 1985, Prince Sultan made history by becoming the first (and to date, only) Saudi astronaut, as well being as first Arab, the first Muslim, and the first Middle Easterner in space. He served as a payload specialist aboard the American space shuttle Discovery as a representative of the Arab Satellite Communications Corporation. As such, he helped launch the company's satellite, ARABSAT-1B, during the trip. Prince Sultan spent seven days, one hour, and thirty-eight minutes in space, and circled the earth 111 times. During the flight, he became the first person to pray Islamic prayers and read the Qur'an outside of the earth's atmosphere. Prince Sultan also spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Fahd from space, and conducted three experiments and two remote observation tasks. Despite the strict gender segregation back home in Saudi Arabia, one of the space shuttle's crew members was a woman, Shannon Lucid.

Prince Sultan returned to a hero's welcome in Saudi Arabia. He was decorated and promoted to major in the air force. After his mission, Prince Sultan was one of a group of former astronauts who helped found the Association of Space Explorers, an organization whose membership is open to all former astronauts and cosmonauts from around the world. He also served on its board of directors, and brought former space travelers to conferences in Saudi Arabia.

Prince Sultan later devoted his energies to a number of nonprofit organizations and causes, particularly those related to the disabled. In 1989 and 1992, he served as chair of the Saudi Benevolent Association for Handicapped Children. He also chaired the board of trustees of the Prince Salman Center for Handicapped Research, and remained involved in the center for many years thereafter. He chaired the organizing committees for the First and Second International Conferences on Disability and Rehabilitation in Riyadh in 1993 and 2000, respectively. In 1997, Prince Sultan chaired the steering committee for Saudi Arabia's National Law for the Disabled. His interests extended in other directions, as well. From 1991 to 1998, the prince was honorary chair of the Saudi Computer Society and, from 1993 to 2000, honorary chair of the Al-Umran Saudi Association, which deals with architecture, historic preservation, and the built environment. From 2000 to 2001, Prince Sultan chaired the founding committee of the Saudi Aviation Club. Finally, he is general secretary and chair of the board of Saudi Arabia's Supreme Commission for Tourism.


Name: Sultan bin Salman Al Sa'ud

Birth: 1956, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Family: Married

Nationality: Saudi Arabian

Education: University of Denver; B.A., mass communications. Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University; M.A., social and political science


  • 1981: Works in Saudi Ministry of Information
  • 1985: Fighter pilot, Saudi air force; astronaut aboard U.S. space shuttle Discovery; secretary general, Supreme Commission for Tourism


Muhammad Ahmad Faris (1951–) was born in Aleppo, Syria, on 26 May 1951. A colonel in the Syrian air force specializing in navigation, Faris became the second Arab, the second Middle Easterner, and the first (and to date, only) Syrian to travel in space. In July 1987, he served as a research cosmonaut on the Soviet Soyuz TM-3 flight. He spent a total of seven days, twenty-three hours, and five minutes in space after blastoff from Baikonur, in the Kazakh Republic of the Soviet Union, on 23 July 1987.


The prince's education in the United States and flight into space aboard an American space shuttle, as well as his record of military service and leadership in social issues in Saudi Arabia, were influenced by his family's commitment to state and social service domestically and maintenance of close relations with the United States diplomatically.

His space flight also contributed to a growing dialogue within the Islamic world in recent years about how the Islamic requirements of prayer and fasting can be carried out while in space. Prayer times, as well as the beginning and ending dates of the holy month of fasting, Ramadan, are set according to position of the sun and the moon as viewed from earth. How can this be accomplished in space? A believer also must wash with water prior to prayer, but how can this be done when water is rationed in space, and when astronauts function in a weightless environment? Prince Sultan's experience was surely on the mind of Malaysia's National Space Agency when it held a two-day conference on this topic in April 2006.


While he became famous internationally because of his space flight, global attention has focused little upon Prince Sultan in the years since. The fact that two subsequent American space shuttle missions ended in disaster also has served to dim the memory of earlier space shuttle missions like the one involving Prince Sultan.


Despite considerable attention given to Prince Sultan at the time of his 1985 space flight, little of lasting substance came of that particular space shuttle mission. His greatest international legacy will come from the fact that he was the first Saudi, first Arab, and first Muslim in space. His legacy within Saudi Arabia also will stem from his active involvement with the plight of the disabled in Saudi Arabia over the years since 1985.


Fitchett, Joseph, and Kenneth Storey. "Down to Earth." Saudi Aramco World (January-February 1986). Available from

Lawton, John, and Patricia Moody. "A Prince in Space." Saudi Aramco World (January-February 1986). Available from

                                       Michael R. Fischbach


Looking at it [the earth] from up here, the troubles all over the world and not just in the Middle East look very strange as you see the boundaries and the border lines disappearing.

The Arab world is [1986] at a turning point. We have gone through the phases of oil, money and early technological development. The new generation is looking forward to joining the rest of the world by obtaining the most important things in that turnaround: opportunity and education. Together they are the keys that open the door for our future. My space flight is just a crack in that door.